We are tasked with bringing light into the world

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

BY RABBI ELIZABETH HERSH

The Torah portion for this week, Bo, is filled with plagues (three, to be exact), darkness, laws of Passover, the commandment to sanctify the new moon, borrowed items and pidyon ha-ben — redemption of the first-born son. 

This is a story about our liberation from slavery. It is about freedom. This is our story, the story to tell our children and their children. It is the story of our future, of light emerging from darkness.

The plague of darkness has always fascinated me. There was no warning. The JPS Commentary presents the symmetry between the three days of darkness and the three-day journey to worship God that Pharaoh repeatedly denied the Israelites.

Moreover, was it an insult to the Egyptians, who worshipped Ra,  the sun god? As the sun was their ultimate god, darkness presented a troubling message. The rabbis suggested that the darkness during the day was even darker than that of night. Others said that wherever the Israelites were, there was light. And even in the darkness, those with faith could find their way.

Was the darkness not a physical aspect, but a moral deprivation?

During the bleak days of COVID-19, many have felt alone in the darkness of isolation. With little light or hope, we have been wearing the darkness like a heavy cloak.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Rabbi Yossy Goldman shared the following story that illustrates how each of us can bring light to a darkened place. You may have heard variations of this tale:

“The story is told of a wealthy man who had three sons. As he was uncertain as to which son he should entrust with the management of his business, he devised a test. He took his three sons to a room that was empty, and he said to each of them, ‘Fill this room as best you are able.’

“The first son got to work immediately. He called in bulldozers, earthmoving equipment, workmen with shovels and wheelbarrows, and they got mightily busy. By the end of the day the room was filled, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with earth.

The room was cleared, and the second son was given his chance. 

“He was more of an accountant type, so he had no shortage of paper: boxes, files, archives and records that had been standing and accumulating dust for years and years suddenly found a new purpose. At any rate, it did not take long, and the room was absolutely filled from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with paper.

“Again, the room was cleared, and the third son was given his turn. He seemed very relaxed and did not appear to be gathering or collecting anything at all with which to fill the room. He waited until nightfall and then invited his father and the family to join him at the room. Slowly, he opened the door. The room was absolutely pitch black, engulfed in darkness. He took something out of his pocket. It was a candle. He lit the candle and suddenly the room was filled with light.”

As the new secular year has begun, I reflect upon the sparks of light I see even though the time of sunlight is brief. I am aware of renewed and perhaps stronger relationships. I learn about new hobbies or time to read those books waiting to be opened. I notice the world with a fresh intensity that I did not always spend the time doing.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Our goal should be to live in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.” 

We are living life with an intensity filled with meaning and intention.

The Rhiziner Rav wrote that “every Jewish soul has a spark of light from the Light Above.” Each of you carries within your soul a spark of the Divine, a glimmer of light. You have the ability to light your way, to bring rays of sunshine to others and to extinguish the darkness in which so many dwell.

You can bring light to this world. And the light you bring will be welcomed as a loving embrace. Light is hope. This is our moral obligation. It is a simple task and a way to affirm life and our sacred teachings. 

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the dvar Torah for the Jewish Light.

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