Sermon Shabbat Bo 5781
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Here in Tucson, we live in a world of sunlight. We enjoy well over 300 days a year of sunshine, and soon come to take it for granted. Especially this time of year, when much of our country is cold and frozen, we are typically blessed with beautiful weather and sunny days. The fact that here at Beit Simcha we find ourselves located next to a tanning salon is one of the truly astonishing things you could ever imagine. Who needs a tanning salon in the Sonoran Desert? I must add that they are kind neighbors who have been in business for many years, and somehow have stayed open through this whole pandemic as an “essential business.” So apparently even in a place filled with sunlight there are those who crave—and require—even more illumination.
Light is considered a blessing in Jewish tradition. It is, after all, God’s very first creation in Genesis, Y’hi Or, we light candles each Shabbat and every festival in order to symbolize the special blessing of light that we are granted on these holy days; Hanukkah, of course, brings an abundance of light into a period of darkness. In Zohar, the amazing Kabbalistic text that we study here every Tuesday at noon, light is understood to be the way in which divine energy emanates into our own universe; the very name “Zohar” means a kind of illumination, divine light. And the great movement of the 19th century that brought the great light of reason to bear on our entire tradition is called the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment; my grandfather, Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon in whose name we are giving awards this Sunday at noon, was a part of that, as were the leading lights of early Zionism and many other modern Jewish movements.
So the denial of light would be, in nearly all circumstances, a challenge of the first order. Which makes the ninth plague, the penultimate punishment of the Egyptians slaveholders, such a dramatic moment in a narrative replete with them. The description of this event, the advent of deepest darkness, is eloquent in our Torah portion of Bo in Exodus:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the heavens that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” And so Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was. (Exod. 10:21-23)
There is something uniquely powerful in this particular plague that differs qualitatively from the plagues that have preceded it. It’s not as though the earlier punishments were trivial. Indeed, they have been vivid and awful, each in its own way. But this plague of darkness somehow has a different quality to it.
There is a Midrash on this, in Shmot Rabbah (14:2) that calls the plague of darkness “The darkness of Gei-Chinom, Hell, connecting the darkness visited upon Egypt with the primordial darkness that preceded God’s command “Let there be light!” Remember, the Torah tells us this is a darkness that is so deep it can, literally, be felt.
Have you ever explored a deep cave, like the wonderful ones at Kartchner Caverns near Tombstone? Sometimes when you tour a cave they do a little demonstration for you, as a visitor, and shut off the artificial lights, so that you can see what it feels like when the lights go completely out, when it’s truly black. You can hold your hand in front of your face and not see it. When you have that experience, of utter darkness completely devoid of all sources of light, you begin to understand what it might mean to “feel the darkness.” A period of a minute in an utterly dark cave is enough to cause some serious anxiety, I can promise you. A period of three days would be utterly terrifying.
We know that the long-term effects of being deprived of light, especially sunlight, are very negative. Most people consider Scandinavia to be a place where people generally are very content; those countries are quite well off, their educational systems and health care are excellent, their governments are well thought-of, they have many advantages that most nations don’t enjoy, including elegant furniture designs and incredibly safe cars. Lots of people in many other parts of the world would love to live in Scandinavia.
Only not so much in the winter, when wonderful countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland have spectacularly high suicide rates, among the very highest in the entire world. It’s not the cold that causes this; it’s the long days in the far northern winters with minimal light. It’s the darkness.
Darkness is closely associated with depression in psychological literature, and the causality is well established. Even when there are no other stressors, research shows that darkness causes depression, and can even damage the brain, limiting its ability to accept positive neurotransmitters. That is, prolonged darkness provokes a kind of anti-endorphin response, and we sink down into a dark tunnel. The response it provokes is also one of alienation. We see, or rather feel the darkness, and simultaneous believe we are alone in this. We perceive that we are alone in the dark, as it were.
Our Torah commentators focus on this when considering the plague of darkness. You see it wasn’t just the darkness that was the problem; it was that those afflicted with it were unable to see anyone else. They became locked in the prison of themselves.
The darkness is not just an inability to see things. It is in particular an inability to see people, other people, to recognize them as similar human beings who have similar needs.
As one commentator says, “Just as the special light of Shabbat is an appetizer, a foretaste of the world to come, the reward that awaits the righteous, so the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Geihinnom, the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors… The person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, of rising from where he is currently.”
There is a famous passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 9b) that explores how we know when dawn has come and darkness has ended. Although I first studied that tractate during high school with my father, Rabbi Baruch Cohon, but it was brought to my mind by an Episcopal Rector named Clay Turner when I served a congregation in South Carolina. The rabbis are discussing when it is we know that dawn has come and the darkness of night is over. They debate when you can tell a white thread from a black one, or perhaps only when you can tell a blue thread from a green one, a much harder thing to judge, a tougher standard. After some pages of discussion another answer is offered: it is when you can look on the face of a fellow human being and see there the divine image, the face of God.
That is, the dawn has come and darkness is over when you can look at another person and see the face of God. When we can see the other, and recognize the Divine image shared by all humanity, the darkness ends.
In Bo the effect of darkness is described as, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was.” Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg, the Alter Gerrer Rebbe, founder of the Ger Hasidim near Warsaw, comments that the greater darkness is when a person does not see his neighbor and does not sympathize with his pain; the result is that his capacity to feel becomes dull and paralyzed, and therefore no one could rise from his place, nobody could move. It was lack of empathy that caused this paralysis, a total inability to realize that they—meaning we—are all in this together. Each of us must seek a way out of the darkness, and when we realize that we are not alone we find others to help us.
Remember, this plague of darkness is no accident. For the darkness the Egyptians now experience, the terror and depression that overcomes them and make them feel the deep angst of their existential aloneness, is closely tied to how they have acted for 400 years. The Torah tells us that the Israelites suffering under Egyptian slavery were afflicted with hard labor and depressed spirits.
Yet the Egyptians did not see the despair of the people of Israel. They did not look into the eyes of their fellow human beings, the suffering Hebrews, and acknowledge their pain. Metaphorically, they already were stumbling about in the darkness, tripping over core values like basic respect and human freedom. These Egyptians were a people already blind, engulfed by spiritual and emotional darkness.
How does darkness become a plague? By blocking the light, turning off our awareness, shutting down relationships, and preventing us from feeling, from changing our behaviors and our culture and society.
It is notable that even after the plague is lifted the Pharaoh and his people do not allow the Israelites to go free. For the plague of darkness that they have so recently experienced is still mirrored in the darkness of their own souls. They act unjustly, inflicting slavery and darkness on those weaker than themselves. A little object lesson in obscurity does not prove to be enough to change their dark habits. Greater, still more powerful and destructive punishments have to be employed in order to free the captive people.
But perhaps this lesson of darkness may prove to be enough for the rest of us. For the great message of this plague is that when we can bring light to bear we will see that we are not alone, that others suffer more than we do, that we have the capacity to rise from despair and bring hope and blessing to others through our own actions. Proverbs, Mishlei, teaches us that Ner Adonai nishmat adam, the soul of a person is the lamp of God.” We each have the ability to bring light into our world by our own actions, by truly seeing those people all around us, feeling not the darkness but their warmth and need, and helping them.
At the end of Shabbat each week we kindle light once more, at Havdallah. We light the braided candle and illuminate our Saturday night, bringing the special light of the Sabbath into the week to come, assuring that it will not begin in darkness, allowing its flames to remind us that we each have an opportunity to bring our own nitzutzei Elohim, our own small sparks of God into our own society and world.
In my own home, we always put some coins in the Tzedakah box right after Havdallah. It’s a small reminder that this light of God, this illumination that prevents the plague of darkness, is within our capacity to ignite, even in the smallest of ways.
Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old poet who stole the entire show at the Inauguration of President Biden last week, began her poem with the words, “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid The new dawn blooms as we free it For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
May we each find ways to be the light in that darkness, on this Shabbat, in this coming week, and always.