From darkness comes light

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.

BY RABBI DALE SCHREIBER

The whole Torah is about journey. The journeys of Genesis bring the Israelites into Egypt as an honored people who become enslaved. The Book of Exodus, called Shemot (Names), narrates the journey of a new collective of slaves into a people called Israel. 

The Book of Exodus is a journey through resistance in the face of reason, and persistence in the face of failure. Thus far in the story, Pharaoh has resisted all overtures to release the Israelites.  The first seven plagues ended in an environmental catastrophe from a devastating hail storm, afflicting all of Egypt.  

This week’s portion, Bo, begins with God instructing Moses to “come” and deliver the final three plagues that will obliterate the earth, blot out the sun and destroy the soul of Egypt. The story tells us that Pharaoh cannot help himself. His counselors are clueless and plead: “How long will this man (Moses) embroil us? Send them to serve YHVH, their God.  Do you not yet know Egypt is destroyed!”  

His people are powerless to change their future. The text repeatedly reminds us that this story is about the supremacy of Israel’s God, a contest between God and the gods of the ancient world. We commemorate this in each service with the Mi-Chamocha prayer: Who among the gods compares with you, Eternal One?  Whose holiness is as glorious as Yours? 

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In the first of plague, swarms of locusts consume every bit of vegetation. Rashi notes the literal meaning as the eye of the land is blinded. Darkness, the second plague, descends as a cloak obliterating all light. People were weighed down and immobilized for three days until Pharaoh relented temporarily. The final and most devastating plague cost the lives of every firstborn among the people and their flocks.  

There is a Hasidic teaching that every word is a microcosm containing the entire world. The word “darkness” is a word for our own time. It is a word that consumes creativity and our life force. It lends itself to despair, hopelessness in the face of possibilities.  

There are painful episodes in the Jewish Journey. Rabbi Shai Held teaches the journeys through Torah are excruciating; there is a trail of death. The Jewish people travel to the brink of a promise and never cross into its reality: the promised land.  Perhaps that is why the prophets and the psalmists are so very important in our understanding of difficult times.   

There is a pervasive darkness in the world today. Our teacher, Or Ha-Meir, taught that when there is a great darkness, awareness is absent and the tendency is to fall into the narrow place. (Mitzrayim is the word for Egypt in Hebrew.) There are many sources of oppression and many plagues that qualify as crucibles of darkness. Who can be blamed for floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, raging winds and fires, excessive cold, mudslides and other events that consume life and land? Who can we turn to when darkness and despair subjugate our will to act? 

The antidote to darkness for our predecessors were the words – the worlds – that consoled and reaffirmed the possibilities that hope offers. More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We face a fierce urgency” and “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was not prone to despair even in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He dedicated “Who Is Man” to his daughter Susannah with words that echo throughout our Jewish library: “Be strong and of good courage, and act.”

When we come to dwell in darkness, we can take to heart the beautiful reminder in Psalm 121.  Esa Einai: We can lift our eyes to the heights, to a place beyond the darkness and know we might gather strength from the Source of All Creation who built light into the fabric of our universe and calls all life good. We, too, can become builders and rebuilders of holy ideas, holy places and holy souls to preserve and share the preciousness of our light.