Parashat Bo, February 3, 2017
We are living in dark times. I know this because people are saying it to me all the time. We are living in dark times. We reach for that metaphor because we are frightened and we need big language. "Dark times" has a pageantry, an epicness to it. Yes, children, gather round and Grandpa Irwin will tell you about the Dark Times.
Living in and through dark times gives us a mythic quality, as if we were especially selected by history. We are not just here by happenstance. There is a mission or meaning to it. We quote Clarissa Pinkola Estes and say, "We were made for these times." And she's right: we have the skills and experience to endure, to suffer what we will suffer, and to rebuild what we will need to rebuild. But framing it as "we were made for these times" invokes a mythic resonance, an air of destiny, that gives dignity to what might otherwise be a sad and undignified hour.
Using language of dark times positions us in an epic struggle of good versus evil. And we like this language because in it we heroes. And also because it keeps our current experience from becoming normal. If we were to describe this moment as a political setback, even a huge and disastrous political setback, it would somehow unacceptably normalize the situation. It would force us to accept a new reality that we don't want to accept.
When, in fact, this kind of reality – opportunistic politicians exploiting deep social prejudices and fear – this kind of reality is common. It is common in many places and has been common in many eras. Including in the US throughout our lives. The fairness of democracy, the benevolence of government – these are not things that everyone in our country has been able to rely on. Ask poor people or people of color and you might or might not get the same take on how mythically dark this moment is. For many in this country, what is happening now is more of the same. There is undeniable privilege in being able to declare the times dark.
We are living in dark times. That's what we are saying to each other these days, invoking the mythical. So if we're going to invoke the mythical, how might we deploy the mythical not just as some apocalyptic battle?
Maybe we in this room start with our own myths. Because this week's Torah portion specifically talks about dark times. Not just the dark times of of slavery in Egypt. But also a literal dark time. Three dark days in Nisan. We are in the book of Exodus, and Pharaoh has been given many chances to change his politics. To stop oppressing and scapegoating the Israelites. To give them freedom of movement, including the freedom to leave. Every time he seems moved to change, he recants.
Then in Exodus 10:22 Moshe raises his arms to heaven and invites the ninth plague: choshekh afeylah. The plague of darkness. This is darkness so intense that Torah has to use two words for it. Not just choshekh but choshekh afeylah. Darkness of darkness. The inkiest, darkest of darknesses. This choshekh afeylah falls on the land of Egypt and the people could not see each other's faces for three days. But, Torah tells us, in their homes, the Israelites had light. (10:22).
Now certainly it's not a matter of the Israelites lighting lamps and candles, because the Egyptians had lamps and candles too. Instead, somehow, this was a darkness in which lamps, candles, sun, moon and stars were all taken offline. So what was the nature of this darkness and what was the nature of the light in the Israelites' homes?
Our Midrash [Exodus Rabbah 14c] offers some speculation. Rabbi Avdimi says that this darkness was kaful um'chupal. Doubled, and doubled again. Maybe he's riffing off of the double-language of choshekh afeylah – that this darkness was "twice" the darkness. But he also seems to be saying that it was darkness of a dual nature: for some people it obscured and for others it revealed.
The midrash goes on to tell how Israelites would visit Egyptian homes to borrow some object. The Egyptians, thinking themselves concealed by this pitch black, would say, "We have none." But the Israelite would be able to say, "But there it is right over there." It was a darkness that for the Egyptians concealed everything. But for the Israelites it was its own kind of light.
This was the same kind of darkness that returns in the subsequent Torah portion, B'shallach, when the Israelites are running for the border and the Egyptians are after them. At night there are two encampments. And Torah says,
וַיָּבֹא בֵּין מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי הֶעָנָן וְהַחשֶׁךְ וַיָּאֶר אֶת־הַלָּיְלָה
"A cloud of darkness came between the Israelite camp and the Egyptian camp and it illuminated the night."
The darkness in Exodus is darkness that illuminates. Darkness that you can see by, steer by, study by, learn by. Darkness that is a spotlight, perhaps illuminating some things which, in the darkness, we deny are even there.
So what do we see in the darkness of this time? What does it illuminate that was previously concealed? It illuminated a lot about fear. That half the country, in order not to feel fearful, are willing to be like children protected by a bully. What else? That half of our country, not a marginal group, wants our borders shut; and to barricade themselves against all the terrors that they perceive approaching. And while many of us are outraged and wounded this week by the ban on refugees and on immigrants from seven Muslim countries, a third of our country reports feeling safer. [Reuters Poll 2/2/17]. The darkness of this moment is shining bright light on the emotions that drive us, individually and as a body politic.
And what light does this darkness shine on us progressives? What fears of our own are in play right now? What is our fear of authority or maybe our fear of failure that makes us more in our element in protest than in ? What are the racisms that operate in us that we've papered over with good progressive talk, talk that failed to persuade a nation because it was in fact paper thin? Where have we failed to go deep? To challenge ourselves and be challenged and to learn and to be challenged again?
As some of the adrenaline of the past few weeks ebbs, we find ourselves looking at a long road, a marathon, a new reality, or an old reality that is at last being illuminated. We have time ahead. Lots of time. It might take many years to rebuild and heal the wounds of this moment. So how do we use this time? Yes, we need to show up at meetings and demonstrations and we need to call our representatives when asked. But there is other work to do in these years ahead, deeper projects.
We have an invitation here to do soul work. To build real community. Real coalition. To look inward and understand more about ourselves and what motivates us. To look around and understand more about each other. Including understanding more about millions of white people whom we disagree with on the surface, but whose fears might also course through our veins.
So if this is a dark time that we're in, maybe we can make it like the choshekh-afeylah, the double-edged darkness that illuminates what it conceals. The darkness that the Sufis sometimes call the "dazzling dark."
In the continuation of the midrash, the rabbis raise the question of where this unnatural darkness came from. Rabbi Nechemya says it is from Gehinom, from hell, citing a verse of Job, where Job talks about a land so full of despair that even the light is darkness. [Job 10:22] But Rabbi Yehudah says that this special darkness is from a holy darkness above, which is why Moshe raise his hands to heaven to call it down. Rabbi Yehuda cites Psalm 18, where it says:
יָשֶׁת חשֶׁךְ סִתְרו
"He (meaning God) made darkness his secret place." [Psalm 18:20] This is not the dark of fear, but the dark of holiness. The dark before Creation, when all was God. The dark from which the light of "Let there be light," the supernal light, the light of wisdom, emerged, not as an opposite but as a fruition. Darkness that, in the words of the wonderful Sikh storyteller Valarie Kaur, is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb.
These are dark times. At least that's what they say. What we say. May this be that darkness of holiness. That darkness of the womb. That darkness that is a different kind of light, illuminating what had been concealed around us and in us, a dazzling darkness to light our steps.
Much of my thought here is owed to the insight of my friend Shir Yaakov Feit.