Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Friday, January 22, 2010
Parashat Bo 5770
Light from Within, Light from Without
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake
The Torah portion Bo describes the final plagues that befell the Egyptians, culminating in the death of their first-born and the liberation of the Israelites from bondage.
Scientists, archaeologists, and historians have proposed various natural explanations for the phenomena described in the narrative of the plagues. An entry on the Ten Plagues in Wikipedia reports that “The redness in the Nile could have actually been pollution caused by volcanic activity, which, due to the color of Nile silt, could make the Nile turn blood red, and would also render it undrinkable. Heavy rains in the red-soiled area of Lake Victoria could have caused reddened water to wash downstream. Alternatively, a red toxic algal bloom (red tide) could have produced large quantities of toxins that would kill fish…. Any blight on the water that killed fish also would have caused frogs to leave the river and, probably, die.” And so on.
Yet throughout the narrative of the plagues, the Torah and commentary endeavor to emphasize the supernatural features of the plagues. A “toxic algal bloom” could in no way account for the Torah’s own claim that Egyptian water turned to blood “even in vessels of wood and stone” (Ex. 7:19). The plague of hail describes “fire flashing in the midst of the hail,” an unprecedented phenomenon that the Rabbis understood as a Divine miracle, evidence that only God, Maker of Peace, can harmonize and neutralize the antithetical elements of fire and ice (RaSHI to Ex. 9:24). Every plague evinces God’s hand.
So too with the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. This was no ordinary darkness. In the space of two verses, the Torah refers to “darkness” three times, calling it “a darkness that can be touched” and “thick darkness” so oppressive that “for three days no one could move about” (Ex. 10:21-23).
In contrast, “all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:23). Midrash points out that the light, like the darkness, was abnormal, miraculous. “It does not say [that the light shone] ‘in the land of Goshen’ but rather ‘in their dwellings,’ to show that wherever a Jew went, light also went” (Exodus Rabbah 14:3). The light shone from within, not from without—not from the sun, not from torches. By inference, we conclude that the thick darkness—darkness that could be touched—arose not in the Heavens but in the debased spiritual and moral condition of the Egyptians. Egypt, mightiest empire on earth, has been laid low by the power of an invisible God heretofore unknown to them, the God of a ragtag band of Hebrew-speaking slaves. The rich households of the Egyptian masters stand entombed in darkness—their residents rendered immobile for three days—while the Jews bask in the light, moving about like free men and women. Our people may have been materially impoverished, but we were spiritually enlightened.
Light and Darkness thereby reflect conditions of interior space, the rich inner lives we rarely share with the outside world. Consider the import of this text as we interact with others. A thousand people could experience the same event and yet report its significance in a thousand different ways. For some, a beautiful sunset evokes joy and for others the same sunset evokes the pain of a long-lost love. The maker of metaphors sees the poetry in the sunset but the meteorologist sees only particles of pollution obscuring the sun.
I am often reminded that a synagogue sanctuary during services contains a microcosm of the world and every variation of the human experience. The words and melodies of our prayers do not change as they reach the ears of the worshippers, but their meanings mutate once they reach the heart. A prayer book meditation by the late Rabbi Chaim Stern announces:
Each of us enters this sanctuary with a different need.
Some hearts are full of gratitude and joy:
They are overflowing with the happiness of love and the joy of life;
They are eager to confront the day, to make the world more fair; they
Are recovering from illness or have escaped misfortune.
And we rejoice with them.
Some hearts ache with sorrow:
Disappointments weigh heavily upon them, and they have tasted despair;
families have been broken; loved ones lie on a bed of pain;
death has taken those whom they cherished.
May our presence and sympathy bring them comfort….
(Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays).
We sit in the same sanctuary. Yet some bask in light while others sit encased in thick darkness.
Some people live with unshakeable sadness. One such woman, reflecting on the darkness in her life, was described to me by my friend Rabbi Alexis Berk. “Sometimes… she feels invisible. She feels that people bump into her … like in the grocery store or in line … like she’s not there. Sometimes they say, ‘Excuse me.’ Sometimes not. She feels this happens a lot. Also, she … often has trouble making automatic doors open. Sometimes she has to stand in front of them, and do a little dance around in order to activate the sensor. She perceives herself in darkness. She is not seen.”
How many go about their days feeling unseen? How frequently do we miss the opportunity to shed a little light? Not out of malice, but simply by being inattentive, unintentionally insensitive?
“Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘The eye is white with a black part in its middle. Out of what part would one be expected to see? Out of the white part, surely. But, no, one sees out of the black part…. You find that one who is in the dark can see what is in the light, whereas one who is in the light cannot see what is in the dark” (Midrash Yalkut 378). How ironic, and how sad! Those who dwell in darkness—elderly people shut in their apartments, sick people lying on beds of loneliness or pain, sullen adolescents who want only to feel socially included, mourners—often feel mocked by the simple pleasures of life and light. Meanwhile, we in the light often fear to peer into the dark.
I would ask you to join us in two weeks, on February 5th at 6:15 PM, when WRT will celebrate its first Inclusion Shabbat, a Friday evening service dedicated to focusing on awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities in congregational life. While WRT is already a leading synagogue in this sacred work, it remains important not only to lift up our accomplishments but also to challenge ourselves to extend and deepen our commitments to all people, including those whose physical, mental, or emotional challenges often present obstacles to their inclusion inside and outside their synagogue homes. Living too much in darkness, they can perceive all too well how those in the light often fail to meet their gaze. Our beautiful Friday evening service will feature Susan Wiener who will offer the D’var Torah. Sue has long engaged in the work of sacred inclusion here at WRT and in Westchester county and her tireless effort, optimism, motivation, and inspiration provides a beacon of light in the darkness. I know that you will emerge from Inclusion Shabbat feeling enlightened and uplifted and motivated to bring the work of inclusion into your engagements inside and outside the walls of WRT.
I would also announce with happiness that our Westchester Reform Temple community has begun an important conversation about sacred hospitality, a comprehensive re-thinking about what it means to be a “greeter” here in Temple. Any of you who has ever entered a gathering as a newcomer knows how intimidating stepping into that room can feel. We are working together with a large and eager group of lay leaders to envision and actualize a congregation in which ushering at services represents only the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing work of making every person who enters our synagogue feel as if he or she has stepped from the darkness into the light--and not the other way around.
And of course our obligations extend well outside our community to places of dire darkness, even if far away. The nightmare of Haiti continues to summon us to give generously and motivate others to do the same. We have made available notecards informing you of some of our recommended agencies who have proved most effective in using tzedakah responsibly and efficiently. We especially advise everyone to consider contributing to the American Jewish World Service, the only such aid organization to have built up a true infrastructure for mobilizing aid over years and years of work in some of the world’s darkest places, including Darfur, and including Haiti, which long before the earthquake stood out tragically as the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. You can take these cards as you leave our sanctuary tonight.
The Israelites did not enjoy light only in their dwellings. “Wherever a Jew went, light also went.” This is what it means to be a Jew. We have an obligation not only to enjoy the light we have, but to share it and spread it wherever we go.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake