Darkness of a Deeper Nature

Parashat Bo details the last four of the 10 plagues and I would like to focus specifically on the plague of Darkness. Here's what the Torah says from Shemot/Exodus Chapter 10:

What was this thick darkness? How can you "feel" darkness? What does it mean they couldn't see one another or rise from their place?

So personally, the only reference I have to this kind of thick darkness was one of the hurricanes we experienced about a decade ago (I think Wilma) in which most of Miami lost power. I remember how utterly dark it was that night. No stars, no ambient light from street lights, nothing. So dark that when I went down my front steps to see if I could spot a house that might have electricity, I took about 4 steps down my walk and just stopped dead. 

So personally, the only reference I have to this kind of thick darkness was one of the hurricanes we experienced about a decade ago (I think Wilma) in which most of Miami lost power. I remember how utterly dark it was that night. No stars, no ambient light from street lights, nothing. So dark that when I went down my front steps to see if I could spot a house that might have electricity, I took about 4 steps down my walk and just stopped dead.

It was so dark that when I looked down, I couldn't see my feet! When I raised my hand in front of my face, I couldn't see my hand! And then I suddenly realized, if I keep walking, I will never be able to find my way home and I'd be lost until morning. That engendered a split-second of complete terror, at which point I wisely turned around, gingerly walked a few feet until I felt the steps and the railing alongside, and then went right back inside to the safety of my candle-lit living room.

So maybe it was that kind of thick darkness. Or maybe it was something more...

So often the stories of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) can be read on multiple levels- of course the literal (peshat) level as if it were a newspaper report, but also on the literary/symbolic level (remez/drash). And I truly believe this is intentional; in other words, there is Divinity embedded in our Torah- it speaks to us on multiple levels (like living life!) but it is up to us what we can/ are willing to perceive.

Which is why this darkness might have just been a plain ole' hurricane blackout kinda darkness AND it might have been more. As the medieval Italian Jewish commentator, Sforno (~1475-1550) says: Generally, 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[As quoted in the Plaut Chumash]

What kind of darkness is of a deeper nature?

The 19th century Hungarian commentator the Ketav Sofer (Samuel Wolf Schreiber but called by his main work) understands: When a man does not see others or want to see them, there is darkness in the world.

And similarly, but with another twist, the Gerer Rav (1800s Poland) teaches: The darkness was so dense that people could not see one another. That is the worst of all darknesses: when people are unable to "see" their neighbors, that is, note their distress and help them.

Our rabbis are teaching us that darkness = when we do not see others or want to see them, meaning note their distress and help. That is thick darkness. That is darkness deeper than on a literal level. This is darkness that has sunk into our very soul.

So many of our social and societal problems are a result of the inability to "see" - to perceive the humanity, the pain, the essence of the "other" as also a Divine Being made B'tzelem Elohim/ In the Image of the Divine. That does not mean we have to agree with them or even like them or even want them as neighbors (or fellow citizens). But it does mean we have to see them as human beings and treat them accordingly.

May we be reminded by this week's parsha to endeavor every day and always to "see" those around us and therefore, ultimately to better see ourselves as well.

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