The origin of my name Ellen is derived from the Greek root ēlē meaning light or bright. Perhaps that explains why I’ve always had an affinity for light. Or more precisely, fire. If you build a fire, I will be lost to it, mesmerized by the flames for hours. So, it makes sense that of all the concepts illustrated in Parashat Bo, I am particularly drawn to contemplate the ninth plague of darkness, with regard, of course, to its juxtaposition to light.
The scholars among us may know more, but for many of us the plagues are but drops of wine on a small plate during the Seder…. So, allow me to read this short translation from Torah that describes the part of the ninth plague upon which I will focus:
21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your arm toward the heavens so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his arm toward the heavens, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. 23 A man saw not his fellow nor did he move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
Why is light so essential?
Perhaps it is that in spite of being surrounded by items designed to improve our lives, without light the most helpful of these items become obstacles. A person walking in darkness will trip over a chair or a table or the corner of a rug.
Light also motivates us. It creates a bright environment that inspires us to rise above self-centeredness and to empathize with others. Darkness, on the other hand, tires us, it breeds depression. The plague of darkness which struck the Egyptians was a reflection of their own sorry spiritual state. The Israelites didn’t suffer from the plague, because for them light was provided by Torah and Mitzvot—as quoted in Proverbs 6:23, “A Mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.”
With the benefit of illumination provided by Torah and the commandments, a different world comes to light. Those obstacles are revealed for what they really are—creations of God, intended to assist in one’s physical and spiritual journey. In contrast to the darkness in which the Egyptians were mired, the light of Torah illuminated the higher order of humanity’s purpose on earth: our mission to help others, the impetus to grow beyond smallness, our ability to remain humble, and to keep hope alive.
As you may know, in many traditional households, the Passover Seder begins at twilight, continues through darkness of night and even at times into the light of day. One might assume the Seder lasts until morning so that we may discuss the Exodus all night. But another possible reason for talking through the night is to emphasize the passage from darkness to light. While the discussions and recitations are important, the underlying message may be to remember that we began our life as a people amid the darkness of slavery, and we emerged into the light of freedom where we received the light of Torah.
In contrast to this thought, while we are required to recount the story of the Exodus at our Seder each year, we are not actually provided with specific words to recite, nor are there instructions on how long the Seder should actually last. Even if we were to go as far as to eliminate most of the words of the Seder—Passover, like our other holidays, begins at twilight and continues through to morning when we rise, and once again reaffirm our survival, our power to persevere through the darkness. As it is written in the Mishnah, P’sachim 10:5: “God took us out of slavery into freedom, and from suffering to joy, from mourning to celebration, and from darkness to great light.”
So, we know that the opposite of darkness is light. And, as we know that a person who ‘sees not his fellow’ is ‘in the dark,’ in contrast we also know that our sensitivity to, and awareness of the needs of others, brings goodness and light.
But, while we may believe we are ‘doing the right thing’ when we engage in lofty, spiritual matters—and likely we are—if we are unaware of what is taking place in the very next room because of this involvement in our own spiritual refinement, we may remain insensitive to the cries of others.
To illustrate this, a story is told of a rabbi who was deeply engrossed in his studies when his baby son fell out of his cradle. The rabbi was in the very next room, yet he heard nothing.
The rabbi’s father, also studying, upstairs, heard the baby cry and went downstairs to calm him. He then reprimanded his son, who had been oblivious. “How could you ignore the baby crying?”
The son replied that he had not heard the crying because he’d been so engrossed in his studies. He believed his excuse was adequate.
The elder rabbi told his son, “You should never be so involved in your own spiritual endeavors that you fail to hear the cry of a child.”
I’d like to tell you about Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz. He is the spiritual leader at Chabad Jewish Center in Temecula, California. Here he contemplates what lessons we may draw from the plague of darkness, especially from the fact that there was darkness and light at the same time.
He explains that “Egypt” in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim.” It is related to the word maytzarim, which means boundaries, constraints, or limitations. It is symbolic of the limitations we experience in this physical world. There are times in our lives when we may experience darkness in the form of heartbreak, oppression, or health problems. Sometimes it may seem there is no hope and that no amount of light can overcome the darkness. The struggle and pain we experience are very real and hard to get through.
Rabbi Hurwitz believes God is telling us that even in this place of extreme darkness there can be found a light—greater light than anything we’ve experienced before. This light can be transformative; it can give new perspective and bring out new abilities. The greater the darkness, the greater the light that can be found within.
He doesn’t believe, of course, that darkness is good. But if you experience it, then search for the positive. Use this new light to brighten your surroundings and to make a difference.
Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz has been rendered immobile by ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, for many years. He has a wife, Rina and seven children. He is unable to speak or type. He uses his eyes to write heartfelt thoughts on the weekly Torah portion.
In conclusion…. Perhaps the Seder reminds us that the plague of darkness, symbolized by a mere drop of wine on a small plate, is in fact a reminder that the members of any community—large or small—can become mired in their own darkness and be unable to see through it because of their collective spiritual darkness.
This plague of darkness on the Egyptians, darkness so thick they could not see one another, nor could they even move around—while there being no effect on the Israelites—is a reminder to us of the power of light as a symbol of hope, even in the darkest of hours.