In this week’s Torah Portion, Bo, we finally see Torah come together. There is narrative (the final three plagues), commandments (to the Israelites of the time), and law (for future generations, regarding Passover, redemption of the first born, and more). As we Jews understand it, Torah, from the word l’horot, to demonstrate, is something that speaks not only to its time of origin, but continues to speak to us thousands of years later, guiding us, teaching us, showing us how to live in a sometimes untenable world.
The penultimate plague seems, at first glance, to be quite a wimpy occurrence: three days of darkness to cover the land of Egypt. After destroying the sources of water, sickening animals and humans, and then battering almost all plant life with hail and locusts, what’s a few days of darkness? Especially since the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, will be so very destructive, why does a short-lived darkness belong in the escalating plague repertoire?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, in his discussion of this plague, points out that the Torah does not say (as it might have) that “for all the Israelites there was no darkness” but rather says “and for all the Israelites there was light in their dwellings.” It was not that God removed the darkness from our ancestors, but that God returned or revealed some of the primordial light locked away since the first few days of the Creation. Rabbi Yitzchak identifies that light, anachronistically, with Torah and mitzvot, but it certainly is not a stretch to realize that giving light in the midst of darkness is quite different from the strategy of deciding who are your favorites and removing the darkness from them.
In this view, darkness has a palpable reality other than the mere absence of light. But it is not all-powerful. Light can dispel darkness, and a mass of strategically-placed light can penetrate much darkness as the Israelite nation and the Jews share that light — the light of knowledge, civility, goodness, humanity (in the highest sense of the term).
This Monday, we will once again celebrate a shard of light amid the darkness as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King and his (and our) struggle against the darkness. Today, perhaps, some of the forces of darkness are new: ISIS, Al Qaeda, and more. Sometimes we see darkness cover the entire face of the world. But even though the darkness is real, we can be assured that the light we carry separates us to realize and come into our destiny — freedom — that presages a greater and brighter future that we need to share with all. It may be a daunting prospect, but its neither new nor impossible. We are somewhere along the path, and we need to move the light forward.