As we approach Passover I, and everyone I know, cannot help but see the ten plagues sent against Egypt in a new way this year.
On ten occasions God sent a plague against the Egyptian people and, time and time again, just as Pharaoh appeared to soften and behave with a bit more compassion the text of the Torah tells us that God hardened his heart.
One of the ten plagues was the plague that began when, as the text of the Torah teaches,
…there was a thick darkness (Exod. 10:22).
The rabbis of old taught:
“The darkness was twice and twice again thicker [than the darkness of any other night, so that] “no one was able to move from his place for three days” (Exod. 10:23)… During the three days of darkness, the cover of thick cloud made it dark for the Egyptians but gave light to the Israelites, so that Israelites were able to enter the houses of the Egyptians and see all that they had.”
Reading this Midrash I could not help but be struck by the verse, “the cover of thick cloud made it dark for the Egyptians but gave light to the Israelites.” This line suggests that while the plague of darkness struck the Egyptians, the Israelites remained unaffected. It is this same mentality that contributed to the slow response to the growing pandemic by far too many countries and states. “There may be darkness (or in this case, illness) over there,” they seemed to say, “but our town, our state, our country has light (ie will remain safe from the pandemic).”
We now know that not to be the case. Viruses know no national boundaries. There is no “light here” while there is “darkness there” when it comes to this disease. So how do we reconcile a Biblical text that (falsely) suggests plagues strike some but not others? I want to suggest that the verse “But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exod. 10:23) is not speaking about the light of illumination but rather the light of love and community.
The Egyptians were cast into darkness such that they could not see. But that wasn’t their only darkness. In their fear, they turned on one another. By so doing they added even more darkness to a situation that was already grim.
The Israelites, by contrast, encountered the same darkness as the Egyptians and were similarly afraid. They, however, immediately sought ways to help one another and, by so doing, they pushed back against the darkness. When they did, even though they could still not see, “the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”
In his book “Jacob the Baker” author Noah Ben Shea shares a similar lesson. He writes,
A neighbor of Jacob’s needed to start on a journey, but it was the middle of the night. Afraid to begin, afraid not to begin, he came to Jacob.
“There is no light on the path,” he complained.
“Take someone with you,” counseled Jacob.
“Jacob, what do you mean? If I do that there will be two blind people.”
“You are wrong,“ said Jacob. “If two people discover each other’s blindness it is already growing light.”
These are dark days. But the kindness and caring that has emanated from so many members of our community bring light into our world. I know for me the ongoing contacts with one another make a tremendous difference. I hope that is the case for each of you as well.
I look forward to seeing you for services at 6:00 pm.