The weekly Torah portion of this week, Parshat Bo, and its teachings, has always stuck with me, way back since I learned it in depth in grade 8. If I have to think about why this parsha in particular, I think partly because the name itself, Bo, offers some very simple ways for remembering what the parsha is about. Bo is spelled Bet (ב) Aleph (א). The numeric value of Bet is 2 and Aleph is 1. 2+1=3. Bo is the third Torah portion in the Book of Exodus, and it contains the last three of the ten plagues. That teaching was easy to remember as a kid, but like many things in life, the deeper truths come with experience and age and a better understanding of the world.
The last three plagues are locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn. Of those three, and I’m being quite honest here, locusts hold little interest for me (since I’m not an Egyptian farmer), the death of the firstborn is too scary and theologically complicated to really contemplate for long, and darkness, well, what’s so bad about a couple of days of darkness? Concerning the plague of darkness, the Torah states that:
God said to Moses: “Stretch out your hand towards heaven, that there shall be darkness over the land of Egypt — palpable darkness.” And Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. A man saw not his fellow (אחיו), neither rose any from his place for three days…
The midrash fills in some of the missing details about the plague of darkness, which seems to have been much more than an absence of light, and more of a oppressively physical, palpable darkness:
There were six days of darkness… during the first three, “a man saw not his fellow”; during the last three days, he who sat could not stand up, he who stood could not sit down, and he who was lying down could not raise himself upright.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, a 19th century rabbi (and first Rebbe of the Ger Chassidic dynasty) who was often known as the Chidushei HaRim (the name of his commentary on the Torah), teaches something really profound about the plague of darkness.
There is no greater darkness than one in which “a man saw not his fellow” — in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man. When that happens, a person becomes stymied in his personal development as well — “neither rose any from his place.”
The grade 4/5 students and I were discussing this teaching this morning. If we are always supposed to find something in the weekly Torah portion that we can relate to, then it’s not enough to see the Egyptians and the plagues happening to them as something that just happens to “bad” people, or other people. We need to understand that we all have a little Mitzrayim, a little Egypt in all of us. If that’s the case, darkness stops becoming just one of the ten plagues, and one can begin to understand how easy it is to be in the dark. These are indeed dark times in so many places in the world, and everywhere you look, there are people crying out for help. If we can’t see the person (wife / child / family / student / friend / employee / community) in front of us, because we are too absorbed in our own lives, too busy, too distracted, too tired, too stressed, too afraid, too (insert your reality here), then we can’t really be there for that person, or anyone else for that matter, in any meaningful way. And what that ultimately means is that we really stop being of any value to ourselves.
Obviously, that’s not any way to live, and we want to be able to live life in the way that is alluded to in the last part of pasuk (verse) 23: “… but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” And how do you do that? By reaching out to others and helping others. Especially when you feel the darkness closing in.
Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach.