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Monday, September 28, 2020

What COVID-19 Teaches Us About The Plague of Darkness

What's darker than not being able to see the people you love?

Let me start with the obvious: this is really hard. Like a reverse “Dayenu.” Even for those of us with roofs over our head, it is hard. (And, of course, how much more so for those who lack even that). Even for those of us with food in the pantry, it is hard. Even if we are not sick ourselves, or have a loved one who is, it is hard. Even if we still have all or some of our income, it is hard. Even if our children are essentially getting by with their school-work, it is hard. Even if, even if, even if…

This is an era whose magnitude and terror has not yet reached its apex, and it already is one that will be considered epic. There will be movies made about this moment in history. Books and scholarship written. Who knows? Depending on the total morbidity, perhaps even memorials in D.C. to the American victims of COVID-19, seeing as how the number of deaths may eclipse the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam. Whereas much of the western world measures modern time as AD, suggesting that time and reality itself had a before-Jesus and after-Jesus meaning, there will be aspects of our lives, and of this society, that will have an AC (after-COVID) “date” to it, even if it is not referenced that way in our calendar. Much may be different when the crisis is over.

In the meantime, we are suffering. Again, you don’t need to be struggling to get air into your lungs or be on the verge of destitution to be suffering. If you are anything like me, you sometimes wake up with an anvil on your chest, as this reality is so heavy, so grievous. Sometimes the worry and the anxiety are palpable. Like a mass. Like you can touch it.

This notion makes me think of the midrashic take on the wording of the ninth plague. After the Torah explains that there was darkness over Egypt, we have the words: וימש חושך. Vayamesh hoshekh. There is no unanimity on how to translate the first word, which is the verb. The second word means darkness itself. Midrash Rabbah links the verb vaymesh to the word l’mashesh, used several times in the Torah. That verb means “to grope” or “to feel.” And so the midrash concludes that what made this darkness in Egypt different than all other darknesses (ma nishtana), and therefore not just the absence of light, was that this was a palpable darkness. A bleakness you could feel. A gloom that was tangible. You’ve heard of tension so thick you could cut it with a knife? In Egypt, there was darkness so real that even light couldn’t defeat it.

Does that seem familiar? Even more, the next verse explains that the impact of the darkness was that no one could see one another for three days. The Egyptians didn’t have Zoom. And to not see the people in your lives? Well, that’s a plague.

The Egyptians didn’t have Zoom. And to not see the people in your lives? Well, that’s a plague.

Commentaries wonder about the Israelites’ experience through this palpable darkness. The Torah says וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם. All of the children of Israel had light in their dwellings. The language is interesting, because it does not say that they were spared the plague only in Goshen, which is the part of Egypt they inhabited, and which the Torah specifically mentions regarding the absence of many of the other plagues. But, literally, “wherever they sat” they were free from the impact of the darkness. Two medieval French commentators, Chizkuni and B’khor Shor, say that what protected the Israelites in this plague was not raw geography. Nor was it God’s supernatural interaction, as is the case with the 10th plague. No, here, when it came to physical, overwhelming, crushing darkness…there was something light in the Israelite spirit that kept the gloom at bay. Even when they visited Egyptian homes in neighborhoods suffused with ponderous darkness, the Israelites could see. One another. And even the Egyptians in their suffering.

I take two things from these interpretations. One is that we must find a way to see people in their suffering. Even when darkness utterly occludes their sense of light, we must open our eyes and be witness to their bleakness. For however terrible it is to suffer, it is more so to suffer alone. Two is that we must find within ourselves the same inner light that illuminated the Israelites’ world when everything was shrouded in darkness. That was not magic. Nor, I would posit, was it easy. But it was essential. For their ability to muster light when it seemed otherwise completely illusory kept them safe. It kept them together. It girded them for the travail and journey that was aborning. And it made ultimate liberation possible.

We remain in our Egypt, our מצרים/מיצרים mitzrayim/metzarim, in these dark, narrow straits. There is an end to this darkness that seems not to abate. We must not only imagine the light that will be waiting for us when it is over, but also find a way to shine our light through it.

Wishing everyone a joyful, sweet, kosher, family-centered, delicious, restful and memorable Pesach.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. 

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