Rabbi Sandra Kviat – 19 January 2018
Darkness and Dawn
“People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but all the israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Ex.10.23
Have you ever been in a place without light pollution – where it is really really dark? Where the darkness feels velvety smooth, almost tangible? It does not have to be frightening, even for someone like me who used to be afraid of the dark. Darkness can be positive – dark blinds can make us sleep better, and see a screen clearer.
But the darkness described in Parashat Bo, where we hear of the three last plagues in the Exodus narrative, is not that kind of darkness. It is more like the darkness you can experience inside a subterranean cave, where the darkness is like a wall, where the absolute blackness is crushing, stultifying. “Darkness is merely the absence of light, and can be dispelled by lighting a fire. But this darkness was so thick it could be touched. It was a darkness of a deeper nature”1. Imagine the Egyptians’ experience – a people who worshipped the sun were suddenly cast into absolute darkness, and their solar, light filled deity gone. Some midrashim equates the darkness with the primordial darkness of chaos; “and darkness was upon the face of the deep”, before God said ‘yehi or’ – “let there be light”2. The commentators are trying to show that the darkness thrust upon the Egyptians was a darkness of a different kind than the normal night. It was a “double darkness”, an absolute darkness that was paralyzing, chaotic, and terrifying; if you were seated you could not stand, if you were standing you could not sit.
But more than paralyzing peoples’ movement, the darkness meant “people could not see one another”. With any of the other plagues, the Egyptians were powerless to do something, with darkness they could have lit a candle, and seen each other, and yet they don’t. Again tradition sees this as more than physical, the darkness was a darkness of the soul. A terrifying depressing paralyzation that drags the soul down. After eight plagues, which gradually destabilised their world, chipping away at their sense of place, safety and security, the Egyptians are facing a dark future, both physically, mentally, and spiritually.
How do you get out of this dark cave of the soul? An answer comes surprisingly from the Jewish legal definition of ‘dawn’ – how do we know it is time for morning prayers? – when we can recognise the face of a friend3. When we can truly see other people, and recognise them as our friends, when we can see their joy or their distress and help them, then the darkness is lifting.
1 Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, in W. G. Plaut;The Torah: A Modern Commentary
2 Exodus Rabbah 14.2
3 Babylonian Talmud Berachot 9b
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