Lifting the plague of darkness

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

Growing up in Denver, one of my favorite places to visit was Cave of the Winds just outside Colorado Springs.

Overcoming my claustrophobia, I found the stalactites and stalagmites fascinating, with their beautiful shapes and colors created from dripping water. 

Inevitably during the tour, we were led to a large “room,” where the tour guide turned off the lights. Now, I am not afraid of the dark and prefer my room be as dark as possible for me to be able to go to sleep. However, the darkness in my room in no way was comparable to the utter darkness in the cave once the lights were extinguished. In every cave that I have visited there is a part of the tour when we experience this same utter darkness.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, this utter darkness is one of the plagues imposed upon the Egyptians as a means of persuading  Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that they may serve God in the wilderness instead of Pharaoh in the cities. 

Instead of just a few seconds of darkness, as in the cave, the text says that the Egyptians experienced three days of total and utter darkness. How terrifying this must have been for them if, indeed, they were paralyzed by the dark!

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The Midrash, of course, illuminates the darkness for us with a very insightful commentary. Rather that reading the darkness as a literal darkness, it prefers to understand the darkness as a metaphor for the inability of each person to “see” the other. The darkness that they experienced was a darkness with which they were already afflicted, a darkness of the soul, a blindness to the plight of others around them.

It is not as farfetched as it may seem. After World War II, German citizens who lived contiguous to some of the most notorious death camps claimed that they knew nothing, heard nothing, smelled nothing and saw nothing of what was going on next door to them. They were blind to the plight and the fate of millions of people who were being exterminated in the properties next door to them.

The tragic story of Kitty Genovese, who was brutally raped and murdered on the streets of New York in the mid-20th century, illustrates this type of blindness as well. People walked by as she was being attacked, heard her screams and yet did nothing about it – no one even called the police. They, too, lived in utter darkness and were blind to the plight of another human being. 

In the United States, we have been conditioned to fear; we have meters that tell us what “color” day it is for threats of violence, much as we have for air quality. 

A darkness is descending over this nation in the form of fear and hatred of “the other.” We hear calls for building a wall to separate us from our neighbors. We hear that certain groups cannot be trusted, for they are either criminals or terrorists. Whole populations are being characterized as undesirable.

People are becoming blind to the Divine Image in each person, regardless of their race, religion, nationality, culture, sexual preference or sexual identity. Hateful statements are passed along through social media. Actions take place that threaten the well-being, if not the very lives, of hard-working people. 

As a nation, our strength comes not from homogeneity, but from diversity. We cannot be blind to those who do not resemble us. We cannot be blind to the actions that threaten others. 

God brought a plague upon the Egyptians, which they were already experiencing. They were in the dark as to the treatment of the Israelites. That utter darkness of the heart and soul, that blindness to the plight of others was already within them. 

We, the descendants of those who were slaves to Pharaoh, are commanded to remember what it was like to be slave, and we are to be “a light among the nations,” illuminating the darkness, dispelling it in all of its forms.