January 27, 2023 / 5 Shevat 5783
For many years I assumed that the ninth plague mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, was a plague of darkness, which I simply interpreted to mean a plague that was an absence of light. Apparently, I was mistaken. In fact, a closer look at the text highlighted my total misunderstanding that “the darkness upon the land of Egypt, [was] a darkness that could be touched” (Exodus 10:21).
The rabbis expounded on this phenomenon, explaining that the darkness was so thick that it stopped the Egyptians who were standing from being able to sit and those who were sitting from being able to stand (Shemot Rabbah 14:3). This was a “darkness” that was tangible, that had substance, that according to the 12th Century biblical scholar, Ibn Ezra, absorbed light so that “neither a candle nor fire” could give off any light.
Across the land in Goshen, however, the “Children of Israel enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:23). Here, our sages explain that the light of hope and faith was able to cut through the darkness and provide the Israelites the ability to live life normally while the darkness devastated the Egyptians.
It wasn’t until I fully grasped the degree of this darkness that I began to see a new “creation story” that I had never seen before. When Gd began to create the universe, the Torah described the scene as “unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the abyss” (Genesis 1:2). In response to which Gd said, “Let there be light” (1:3), followed by Gd’s separation of “the light from the darkness” (1:4).
Many of us go through dark periods in our lives, and others suffer from depression and mental health struggles that keep them in the dark for extended periods. We as a people have also suffered from terribly dark times, whether it was the slavery described in this week’s Torah portion, the fall of our great Temples, the Spanish Inquisition, or, most recently, the Holocaust. In each of these situations, the absence of light created tangible darkness.
As the world honors the memory of the victims of the Holocaust on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023, and as the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio wraps up its week of impacting over 25,000 local students across the region, let us remember the words of Miep Gies, “A Righteous Among the Nations,” “Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
This week’s Torah portion teaches us that if our inner flame of hope and faith has the power to push back the plague of darkness and create a new master story of freedom, how much more can this same inner flame change the life of a single person within our reach?
May we all have the courage and strength to call someone who would benefit from an outstretched hand, from a warm “hello,” from a forgiving embrace, and bring about a new beginning for someone in need. Because we are…