Parashat Bo 5783

25 January 2023 – 3 Shevat 5783

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein


At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to spend a night in Death Valley National Park in California. One of the most enchanting things about the experience was the darkness at night and being able to see the star-studded sky in all its glory. As a city dweller so used to constant light pollution, true darkness was a precious gift rather than a horrible plague as portrayed in this week’s Torah portion.

The plague of darkness, which the Egyptians in our Torah portion experience, is described very vividly: In the space of two verses, the Torah refers to “darkness,” choshech , three times, calling it “a darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) and “thick darkness” (Ex. 10:22) so oppressive that “for three days no one could move about” (Ex. 10:23). But in contrast, “all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:23).

What is it about darkness that makes it a plague? Water turned to blood or pests of insects are obviously plagues but why darkness?

For the rabbis of the Talmud darkness renders difference indistinguishable, which prevents us from being able to tell right from wrong, good from bad. The fact that the rabbis choose the colours of the tzitzit as the measure for enough light breaking through the darkness is symbolic because they are supposed to remind us of the mitzvot.

But we don’t have to just turn to the rabbis to understand the danger of darkness preventing us from seeing what is right and what is wrong, up or down. JFK jr tragically died alongside his wife and sister in 1999. Kennedy was a novice pilot. He was flying at night in the darkness, and his instruments were telling him which way was up, but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him, and he couldn’t see it. He lost sight of the horizon and nosedived, and by the time he realized what was happening, it was too late, and he couldn’t pull up.

This well-documented phenomenon of pilots losing sight of the horizon is also a powerful metaphor for mental illness. Last Shabbat the Jewish community marked Mental Health Awareness Shabbat an opportunity to educate about mental health and draw attention to the challenges of destigmatising mental illness.

I shouldn’t have to say it and yet it is important to say it out loud in this newsletter and from the pulpit to remind us all: mental illness, or more correctly described, poor mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, shame is probably the most significant hurdle that we must overcome in order to escape the darkness of poor mental health.

Brené Brown, professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, discussed the damaging potential of shame in her interview with Oprah Winfrey: “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” But, she continues: “You put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and you dowse it with empathy, you’ve create an environment that is hostile to shame. Shame cannot survive being spoken. It can’t survive empathy. … Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I am alone.”

As early as the first chapter of Genesis, we are taught that “there was darkness and there was light” and “it was good.” Darkness precedes the light, without darkness there would be no light. We each have the power to be the light in the darkness, to dispel shame about poor mental health by showing empathy.

And we should acknowledge that we all find ourselves somewhere along that continuum of inner darkness and light. It’s just that our baselines are not the same. But no matter what our baseline, we will experience times in our lives where happiness, joy and content lift us above our baseline, as well as face the challenges of being knocked off our baseline.

Churchill described his own depression as his black dog. Like a loyal pet, the depression accompanied him through life. This image resonates for me as it reminds us that whatever our mental health, wherever our baseline between darkness and light lies, we cannot simply shake out of it – the dog sticks around, even if it sometimes chooses to hide in the living room corner rather than following us around.

It is okay to acknowledge that, just like pilots, we might lose sight of the horizon for darkness exists alongside light. But like pilots, we need to trust instruments to help us navigate the darkness so that we won’t be nosediving until it is too late. Sadly, pilots have access to much more sophisticated navigation aids than we do for navigating the darkness of our soul. But while we might not have readily available technological aids there are methods to help us not lose sight of the horizon. We are fortunate that with JAMI – The Jewish Community’s Response to Mental Health our communities have a wonderful Jewish resource and I know that so much important work is done by the care teams of our LJ congregations.

And we can also turn to some important national resources: the NHS has a wonderful resource entitled the “Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing” [], outlines five simple steps that we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing:

  1. Be active
  2. Keep learning
  3. Give to others
  4. Be mindful
  5. Connect

It is indeed easy for us to see how each of these can be linked to the Jewish values that matter to us as Liberal Jews.

To end with Churchill’s metaphor: we might not be able to scare away the black dog, but we can be a companion alongside another person’s walk with the black dog. So, as we reflect on the message of Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, let us make sure that in moments when someone in our community is about to lose sight of the horizon, we are around to be navigation aid even if we might not always be able to dispel the darkness altogether. Let us celebrate the potential of our communities to help guide us through the darkness so that we may never forget that we have the power to bring in the light.


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