A Darkness So Thick

on Friday, 27 January 2012. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

Parshat Bo

How many of you were without power during the storm? Some of you may have been enveloped in darkness, at least until you were able to find candles.  

The ninth plague, which we read about this week, also caused darkness to descend upon Egypt. But, this was no ordinary darkness. This was a thick darkness, “a darkness that could be touched.” [1] A man could not see his brother, and for three days no one could move about, our Torah teaches. How could it be so dark that one could not move? Rashi explains: “This was a redoubled darkness, so thick that one who was sitting could not stand and one who was standing could not sit.”[2]  We can imagine a darkness that can be felt, a turbid fog or a dust storm created as locusts decimated the land. But this description of darkness that stymies movement is still puzzling.

This obscurity, what might it have meant for the Egyptians? Let us turn to darkness’ inverse for an answer. The story of creation begins with the Eternal saying, Va’yechi Or, ‘Let there be light.’ What is this light? Psychologist and Rabbi Levi Meier interprets it to mean “A Divine energy, a radiance, is reflected in our own zest for life.” [3] Light is connection to the Life Force, the Transcendent filling us with purpose, wholeness, meaning. When that life force is absent, we plunge into a dark hollow. Our world becomes so narrow, we are trapped inside of our thoughts and emotions, unable to connect with those around us.  The Egyptians’ paralysis--one who was sitting could not stand and one who was standing could not sit-- reflects their growing disconnection. They are immobilized.

“A man could not see his brother, and for three days no one could get up from under it.” Does that mean they could not see each other even if they were right next to one another? Perhaps, as Rabbi Lisa Edwards offers, they also did not try to find each other. No one could get up from under it. The grip of darkness was so tight, one couldn’t even experience the presence of another human beside them.

What does it mean to not see each other? Some of you know that I just spent 5 days at a rabbinic retreat cultivating my personal spiritual development. This included exploring contemplative practices, studying Jewish texts, and nurturing characteristics of soul, such as equanimity, generosity, and open-heartedness. One of our main focuses in meditation was just being present, just “seeing” each other so to speak. But it was far from easy! If any of you have ever tried to meditate you know how difficult it is to do something as simple as focus on your breath. You get aggravated by the person who is breathing loudly next to you, you realize you’re hungry and start thinking about what to make for lunch, then you replay the disagreement you had with your partner this morning which reminds you you need to call her to pick up dry cleaning on the way home… and your mind is off telling other stories far away from its focus on just… one… breath. Just being present without all of the interference, the multitasking, the conversations in your head while talking to someone else, the aggravation lurking from previous encounters. All of these things distract us from giving another soul the kavod, the respect, of our whole selves, from truly seeing another person.

On the retreat, one of my rabbinic colleagues spoke poignantly about this. While making a hospital visit, she had trouble shaking a prior conversation with someone she finds challenging. And in the hospital room, she thought about having to get across town shortlyfor a shiva minyan and how hard it would be in rush hour. Sacred work looses its sanctity when the darkness of swirling thoughts and emotions envelops us.

How can we lift this dark blanket? We start by acknowledging it. Naming the moments we don’t feel truly present. We can return to our breath, the Divine Presence coursing through us. And we can also turn to the act of blessing. A bracha can take us out of our swirling distractions and bring us to the present moment. Even when we are scarfing down an apple on our way to our next appointment, to say Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Borei Pri Ha’etz, enables up to acknowledge the miracle of a little seed turning into a luscious fruit. When we see a robin in the dead of winter, its red breast sparkling against snow covered branches, to say Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam,Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit, blessed are you who makes the works of creation. Or when we begin to stir from sleep in the morning, dreams still hanging in the air, to say Modah Ani L’Fanecha, I am grateful for the possibility of a new day, of starting fresh. The practice of blessing offers us the opportunity to be fully present in each moment.

At the same time the Egyptians were enveloped in an impenetrable darkness, we read that, “All the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Perhaps this light was truly a Divine energy, a radiance, the vitality that comes from being able to soak up life because we open ourselves up to the fullness of experience without being mired in the black disruption of an overwrought mind.

On this Shabbat and into the future, may we too enjoy light in our dwellings, a full presence in our interactions, and the chesed, lovingkindness, to gently bring ourselves back to openness and acknowledgement of the light which surrounds us.



[1] Ex. 10:21-23.

[2] Michael Carasik, ed., The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), pp. 70-71.

[3] Rabbi Levi Meier, Moses: The Prince, the Prophet (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998), pp. 73-74.