John Martin, 1823.
Then GOD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them,
and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am GOD.” (Exodus 10:1-2)
Parashat Bo opens with a promise from God that God’s signs, what we call plagues, will continue to befall Egypt until the Israelites are free. God does so in order to remind us to teach our children generation after generation of God’s power and ability to lay others low in order to free the Israelites.
In this portion we read about the last three plagues. The eighth plague, locusts, eats the last of the greenery that remained in Egypt in the wake of the fiery hail that rained down from heaven. The tenth plague, the most terrible of all, will take the first born of each and every Egyptian house.
But I want to take a few minutes to consider the ninth plague, the three days of darkness. As it is written: “Then GOD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.”
Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days.” (Exodus 10:21-22)
The rabbis of our tradition often asked, ‘what does this phrase mean, "a darkness that can be touched”’? Rashi explained that it was a tangible darkness, so thick and unmanageable that it would cause you to grope around even at midday as though it was the darkest night. Sforno posited that this darkness was so significant that it would devour any source of light that the Egyptians tried to light. The Ramban took this idea and expanded it saying that this darkness not only was able to cancel out sources of light, but it did so almost as if it had a mind of its own. Another rabbinical source, Midrash Shemot Rabbah, explains that the darkness was so thick that any person that was standing was unable to sit, and those seated were unable to stand.
All of these descriptions paint an, admittedly, terrifying description of what these days were like for Egypt. A complete and total darkness that stopped people from being able to move, that devoured sources of light. Darkness that brought life to an absolute standstill. In our modern world, this type of darkness is incredibly difficult to imagine. The only parallel that I can imagine is when my fourth or fifth grade class was taken on a field trip to a range of caves about an hour from St. Louis. There we found an area far enough away from the surface that, when we turned out our lights, we could not see our hands in front of our faces. That sort of darkness, unabating for three days, is a terrifying thought.
While the ancient rabbis of our tradition focused on the physical nature of this darkness and its consequences, modern voices considered what this darkness means for us as human beings. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, who lived and worked in what is now Belarus before making aliyah to Jerusalem, wrote that the verse “they did not see one another, neither did any rise from his place for three days” tells us about more than the darkness that befell Egypt. He wrote “The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow, and does not participate in the distress of others.”
The curse of the darkness, the most terrible outcome of it is that human beings lost their ability to see one another. And by not seeing one another, they also lost their ability to empathize, to feel each other's pain and sorrow, that basic fuel that lights our drive to come to other’s aid.
In times of war, there is a similar feeling that darkness has befallen us. The darkness brings with it fear and uncertainty, two emotions that have the ability to quickly extinguish the light of compassion and empathy that we all carry inside of us. Particularly when we come face to face with an enemy that, it seems, has coldly and calculatedly educated thousands that feeling empathy towards me and my Jewish sisters and brothers is weak, is a betrayal of their people.
Empathy has, sadly, become associated with weakness. There are many voices asking, if we show empathy, how can we achieve our goals? Empathy cannot fight wars. Now is the time for cold, impassive calculation. Perhaps that is true.
But, just like the darkness eventually lifted from Egypt, so too will the darkness that has descended upon us also pass and we will be left to deal with the fallout. Empathy, a basic ability to see one another, to see the pain that has touched every single one of us who live in a region that has known far too much darkness as of late is the only chance we have to change the cycle of violence that has shaped the course of thousands of lives.
We cannot determine how others will live their lives. We know that, when the guns fall silent, organizations throughout the Middle East and around the world will continue to spread lies about and hatred of Jews and the Jewish State. There is very little we can do to stop this.
In return, we must hold even tighter to our humanity, to our ability to see one another and to feel the pain of our friends, our neighbors and, yes, our enemies. Because if we give into the darkness, if we allow ourselves to extinguish the light of compassion and humanity particularly in the moments where it is most difficult to maintain we, too, will be lost to hatred and despair from which it will be difficult to recover. In each and every generation forces have risen against us to try and destroy us. It is the love of life and humanity with which our tradition endows us that has allowed us to persevere, to not give into the more base instincts of humanity.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose legacy is marked every year in January in the United States, I will finish with one of his most profound quotes “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”
Let us struggle against the darkness even as it threatens to imbue every aspect of our lives. May we be allies of the light helping it reach even the darkest places.