September 17, 2019

Taking comfort in the light

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

My toddler children sleep with all of the lights on.

I do not remember how it started. It could have been loud noises, an odd shadow on the wall, a bad dream.

I do remember trying to trick them with a nightlight. The small flicker was almost offensive. Protests, crying, negotiating … and all that was by my husband and me. For weeks, my kids pushed, and for weeks, we pushed back. The closet lights, the bathroom light, the hallway light — all of them had to be on. The final straw was when my daughter explained, “But Mommy, it is so dark. The darkness gets darker. Please, just leave the lights on.”

And so the lights stay on. Because of that, we have three children who sleep through the night. Do not bother asking about our electric bill.

My daughter’s question remains. When we face dark times, what happens to our spirit when life seems to get darker? When we think we have hit rock bottom and, somehow, the bottom continues to give out beneath, is our soul damaged in the process?

I recently read an article about “cavers.” James M. Tabor, author of “Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth,” researches the men and women who descend on underground explorations for months at a time. Tabor questions the cavers’ mental and physical ability when experiencing extreme weather, isolation and absolute darkness.

A fascinating discovery is that each human being reacts differently to the dark. For some, all it takes is a day or two for anxiety to erupt. For others, it may take longer. The point being: Darkness affects all and, certainly, our minds become a casualty. It just depends on how much darkness someone can endure before reaching his or her breaking point. For those who think there is a point of no return, is salvation possible?

With the introduction of the plagues unleashed against Egypt in Va’era, we witness a darkening of darkness, a slow breakdown of the human spirit. During the Passover seder, we are accustomed to naming the plague of darkness. However, with a closer reading of the text, it is possible that several plagues of darkness befell Egypt, each plague darker than the former, slowly and intentionally weakening the hearts of the Egyptians.

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh’ ” (Exodus 9:8). A taste of night comes as Moses throws dirt before Pharaoh’s eyes, impairing his sight. Later in the Torah, locusts suffocate Egypt and “the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15). And with the penultimate plague, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21). 

rabbi-nicole-guzikExodus Rabbah teaches that this last darkness is the most crippling. A darkness as thick as a coin, similar to the film that forms when one has a cataract. A darkness that enters your throat and nostrils; a darkness that makes it hard for one to breathe, move or stand. A darkness that paralyzes the body and constrains the soul.

Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg explores this tortuous, systematic darkening of darkness. She contends that, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, no repentance is possible in this kind of dark. In this kind of darkness, it really may be impossible to return. 

Is it true? Is there a kind of darkness in which, once experienced, it is impossible to gain sanity?

It occurs to me that we must never let those we love get to this point. Or at the very least, we should try to save them with every possible attempt. Who experiences absolute darkness? Those who never feel the warmth of another or see sparks of hope breaking the gloom of night.

In our liturgy, we read “Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro. Baruch atah, Adonai, yotzeir ham’orot.” Translation: “Shine a new light upon Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of all heavenly lights.”

Commentators explain that this light is what the righteous will experience in the world to come. I humbly posit that this light is what the righteous offer in this world so that those drowning in seas of darkness have something to hold onto.

Rays of light: squeezing someone’s hand when they would otherwise feel utterly alone; calling someone in mourning and offering an “I’m thinking about you”; a handwritten letter to someone who needs lifting, healing. Repeatedly turning on the light. Never shutting the door to the possibility of hope.

Even the smallest flicker of a flame holds the potential to pierce the solitude of night.

The lights remain on in our home. My children are comforted. And that is fine by me.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.