Find faith, hope in the darkness



Throughout my life, I’ve rarely been afraid of the dark. In fact, I often have been drawn to the darkness, particularly to find the beauty that can be seen only when it becomes dark. When we escape the “light pollution” of human origin, we can discover a dizzying array of stars and constellations, planets and more  revealed in the night sky. When thick clouds conceal the light of the night sky itself, we sometimes are treated to the powerful and awe-inspiring drama of a storm unfolding around us.

I am reminded of the biblical psalmist’s sense of insignificance, singing: “When I gaze upon Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have placed there – (I think to myself) what is a mere human that You remember him, or the child of a human that you even consider him?” 

Yet even the psalmist continues by remembering: “Yet, You have created humanity just below the gods and crowned us with glory and honor.”

Sometimes, it takes darkness for us to truly see. And in the darkness, if we are willing to look closely enough, we are able to see what has always been there. 


This seems to have been God’s intent in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Bo, when we witness the unfolding drama of the story of Moses, Pharoah and the plagues. Near the terrible conclusion of this series of punishments wrought upon Egypt by God, we read of the ninth plague. God tells Moses to hold  out his hand toward the sky and darkness will spread over Egypt.  Moses does as he is told, and total darkness covered all of Egypt for three days, a palpable darkness that can almost be felt, a darkness through which no Egyptian could see or even move. 

It must have been terrifying for them. There were no stars, no heavenly lights, no storms, no flashes of lightning. It was darkness, total and complete. Yet the Israelites were able to see, to function, to stave off fear.

Of this plague, Avivah Zornberg writes in “The Particulars of Rapture” that “… this darkness was a ‘double darkness’ of absolute immobility — those who sat could not stand, those who stood could not sit. … This is a depiction of a dehumanized rigidity, a ‘hardness’ that mimics the rigidity of Pharaoh’s heart throughout the narrative. There is a horror — even a moral repulsiveness — in such a condition. … There is something about the plague of darkness, about the way it reduces the human being to a blind and paralyzed vulnerability, that defies rational or moral explanation.”

We all risk such a vulnerability. When we allow ourselves to be led into darkness, willingly or by deception or even by coercion, we are reduced to an inhuman blindness to what is going on around us, and our hearts may be hardened. 

We live at a time of such vulnerability, particularly in our civic and political discourse. When we allow the rhetoric, the lies, the misdirection, the confusion that often swirl around us to darken our skies, to block our vision, to blind our common sense and our core values, our hearts become hardened as well.  

The consequences for Egypt were dire. So, too, they may be for us. In our “double darkness,” our “absolute immobility,” we, too, risk becoming dehumanized. Suddenly, the impulse of our Jewish values seems unattainable. How can we conquer the darkness to feed the hungry, care for the sick, free the captive, welcome the stranger, make peace when there is strife, when we are in total darkness?

Therefore, we, too, must remember that “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” This is the candle of our faith, our hope, our optimism, our action, our willingness to remember the prophet Micah’s words: 

“Do justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

Rabbi James M. Bennett is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth and is immediate past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.