Parashat Bo: The heart of darkness

Parashat Bo: The heart of darkness

The plagues that God brings to Egypt become increasingly more serious. At first the Nile turns to blood and then frogs infest Egypt. There are gnats, flies, livestock killing disease, boils, hail, and locusts. The Egyptians lose their farm animals and their crops. The final plague, the death of the first born, is of course the most horrifying and tragic. So why is the plague that preceded it only darkness? Maybe before the plague bringing death there should have been something more serious, perhaps some really grotesque disease?

To answer that question, let me start with a different query. How do you know when the sun rises and sets? I have a simple answer, “There’s an app for that!” In fact I have been known to take out my HTC One phone just before evening minyan at my synagogue, which always begins at 7:30 p.m. I touch the icon “Sundroid.” At certain times of the year 7:30 p.m. is before sunset, at other times it is after sunset. Can we recite the afternoon mincha service at that hour or not? Once the sun sets we cannot. Sundroid gives me the information I need. I can’t look out the window in the chapel because it is a bit complicated. The curvature of the earth bends the rays of the sun. When the sun is below the horizon, just before it rises and just after it sets, it is not totally dark. Sunrise and sunset are gradual changes that cannot be seen precisely by the eye.

In ancient times, how did the Rabbis determine when to recite the various daily prayers? The Mishnah asks, “From what time may one recite the Shema in the morning? [i.e. When is sunrise?] From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white. R. Eliezer says between blue and green…” In Talmudic times, they were able to tell when the sun rose the old-fashioned way, by looking but not by looking at the sun. They asked, how much natural light allowed you to make a visual distinction? The first opinion in the text suggests that you could take a lump of blue wool that had some white spots in it and when you could see the white spots clearly, the sun was up. To say that you can distinguish between blue and green probably means that you can see the horizon where the blue of the sky meets the green of the vegetation growing on the earth. There are other opinions in the Talmud. Some say that you must be able to distinguish between a wolf and a dog, or an ass and a wild ass, or that there must be enough light so that a person can distinguish “his friend at a distance of four cubits [six feet].”

After all of these opinions are quoted, what is the final word in Jewish law on this point, determining when the day really begins? The accepted conclusion is the last one. When you can see and recognize your fellow human being, then the day has dawned.

If we apply these thoughts to the plague of darkness, we can read the Biblical text in a different way. The Torah says of the ninth plague, “…thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another…” Why is that plague just before the plague that brought death? Darkness is the inability to see other human beings and know them as your brother and sister. Once they are removed from our common humanity, death is not far away.

Tragically we know of times when we Jews were not seen as human beings, a step that preceded genocide. There were horrible eras when people who did not have white skin were considered as less than human. There are places today where having political beliefs that challenge the government removes you from society. We are fortunate to live at a time when differences of sexual orientation are finally being accepted and are no longer reasons for ostracism or worse.

Just as I am writing these words I read the following from the Israel Hayom: “Israeli doctors perform life-saving heart surgery on 4-year-old Syrian refugee from war-torn Homs. As the boy recovers, his father says: ‘The man we thought loved us is trying to kill us and the supposed enemy saves my son’s life. I could live here.'” We might ask who is living in darkness in the Middle East and who lives in light?

A recent best seller is simply called, “Humans of New York,” a collection of photographs documenting the wide variety of people who live in that city. No matter how different they look, they are our fellow humans. I hope we never suffer from the plague of darkness, a plague not far from the plague of death. Our people know this lesson from our history. Let us pray for the day when such darkness will never again descend on the earth.