Penetrating Through The Darkness

This sermon was delivered by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum during the Friday, Jan. 19, Shabbat Evening Service when she spoke at The Temple-Tifereth Israel.


Shabbat shalom! I’m delighted to be here with all of you this evening. I want to start my remarks tonight with a story. Once, during a trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit with a Bedouin community in the south. We took a long bus ride into the desert, until we reached a settlement that gave new meaning to the “middle of nowhere.” We enjoyed a tea ritual with the residents as the sun went down, and then, as night fell, we got to experience in awe the blanket of stars that emerged. It was incredible. In a place with no light pollution, the brightness of the stars was overwhelming. We could see so many–certainly more than I’d ever seen outside of a planetarium.

Each of us laid on our back there in the Negev desert, faces up at the stars, taking it all in. We were quiet. It was akin to that feeling of quiet that happens with heavy snowfall–there was a weightiness to that night sky that fell over us.

And then, of course, I remembered that we were in the middle of a desert and started to feel a little afraid. Were there animals out there? Were we safe?

It got me thinking about how, if we’re lucky, so much of our lives are built around safety and protection. How “safe” in the modern day often aligns with “well-lit”– a safe parking lot, a safe walk home from transit, a safe neighborhood. We’re in a stage now where light pollution obscures so much of the night sky that true darkness is almost impossible to find, if you’re living anywhere near other people with access to artificial light. It’s almost like darkness, now, is optional, hard to find.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about how God demonstrates God’s power by afflicting the Egyptians with a plague of darkness. We read, “(21) Then יהוה 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.” (22) Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. (23) People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”[1]

Our sages wonder about the quality of this darkness. What is a tangible darkness? A darkness that can be touched? Egyptologists remind us that, because the Egyptians worshiped the sun, this sort of plague would have been emotionally devastating to them; a darkness so thick it was immobilizing would have been a sign of weakness and fallibility on the part of their sun god, and a true show of power of the God of the Israelites. Following Nachum Sarna’s reading, “the impotence of the Egyptians’ supreme god was exposed, thus foreboding imminent doom.”[2]

Some of our sages, like the Ramban, emphasize how miraculous, meaning, unnatural, the darkness was, in that it disabled candlelight as well as sunlight. There was simply no way for the Egyptians to penetrate through the darkness. Modern scholar, Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, writes, “there is something about the plague of darkness, about the way it reduces the human being to a blind and paralyzed vulnerability, that defies rational or moral explanation…in this kind of darkness, one might say, repentance–teshuvah–becomes impossible. There is no possible response to the terror or such a condition.”[3] There was no way to see the humanity, to hold space for relationships–it was just, simply, too dark.

Or HaChayim, an 18th century scholar, teaches, “The darkness of the Egyptians is described in individual terms:

לֹא רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו A person did not see his brother

וּלְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם. for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.

He comments on this word וּלְכָל. No matter what – a Jew had light. Whenever a Jew went to the house of an Egyptian he still had light even within the dwellings of the Egyptian. The light of the Israelites is communal.”

How deeply this resonates at this season in our lives. The light of the Israelites is communal. Even in the face of this tangible, thick darkness, wherever the Israelites went, they had light. My colleague, Rabbi Lucy Dinner teaches, “Freezing the Egyptians in darkness for three days while the Israelites enjoyed light, this ninth plague imposes a hiatus in Egyptian mastery that gives the Israelites a taste of the liberation to come. This temporary reprieve from slavery strengthens the Israelites’ confidence, and makes them eager for freedom.”[4]

In some ways, then, we can read this plague of darkness as a first sample of freedom for the Israelites. They continue to glow. They get to start dreaming: what does a future look like for our community? It’s interesting that, as they make their way, the Israelites will follow God who will appear to them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Our tradition has so much to say about darkness, beyond this plague. Our day begins in the evening, as light merges into darkness. We have a whole liturgy of prayers to say before bed, including a prayer of confession, the shema, hashkiveinu, and a prayer invoking the presence of God’s angels around us to help us sleep safely. There’s a midrash about the creation of tangible fire:

Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Ze’eira: As the sun set at the conclusion of [the first] Shabbat, darkness began approaching, and Adam the first man became afraid, as it is stated: “And I said that darkness will envelop me; Va’lailah or ba’adeini: night for me is light,” (Psalms 139:11) – the serpent is now coming to confront me. What did the Holy One do? God prepared for Adam two flint stones and Adam struck them one against the other. Light emerged from them and he recited a blessing over it. That is what is written: “Va’lailah or ba’adeini: Night for me is light.” What blessing did he recite over it? [Blessed be God] Who creates the lights of fire. בורא פרי האש[5]

Our ancient sages and early liturgists understood how scary night is; how vulnerable we are when the world is dark. And so it is today. Today, to even find actual darkness, we have to go out into the world, away from people, away from our community and the ones who live beside us.

I think this lesson is contained in Torah, as well. Just a few verses after the plague of darkness is announced, Moses and Pharaoh have one more interaction: (27) But יהוה stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go. (28) Pharaoh said to [Moses], “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” (29) And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!”[6]

Is this another plague of darkness? Is the finality of this relationship, this separation between two people, a different kind of immobilizing, tangible darkness?

When I think about the ways we describe our lived experience in these difficult times, I hear people call these “dark days.” The darkness is deeper than the tragedies we see around the world. The darkness is also the way we lose sight of the human beings around us. When we dehumanize others, when we lose sight of the sacred divinity held within each living soul, we increase the darkness in the world. When our perspective is entirely facing inward, we add to the darkness in the world.

I think there’s an antidote, though. There’s a way to penetrate through that darkness. I’m thinking back to Dr. Zornberg’s teaching about the impossibility of repentance in the face of tangible, disorienting, immobilizing darkness. For me, the antidote includes being open to the process of repentance. It’s finding opportunities to come face-to-face with people outside of my own community, outside of my own world view. It’s connecting, it’s hearing stories, even when they’re difficult to hear, that push me to consider my own perspective, my own place of privilege and power. It’s humanizing the other. This is or ba’adeini, light for me.

As I conclude my remarks tonight, I offer these words of poet Adrienne Rich:

Adrienne Rich : In Those Years (1991)[7]

In those years, people will say, we lost track

of the meaning of we, of you

we found ourselves 

reduced to I

and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible:

we were trying to live a personal life and, yes, that was the only life

we could bear witness to


But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged

into our personal weather

They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove

along the shore, through the rags of fog

where we stood, saying I


May we find ways to penetrate the darkness around us. May we push ourselves to see past ourselves, and to use the glow of our community to make the world a brighter, more just place. May we be seekers of light: in the sky, in the world, and in each other. Va’lailah or ba’adeini: may we find light in the darkness. Ken yehi ratzon: may this be God’s will.

[1] Exodus 10:21-23

[2] Sarna, JPS Commentary on the Torah, page 51

[3] Avivah Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, page 167

[4]  “Bo: Power and Liberation,” The Women’s Torah Commentary p.135

[5] Bereshit Rabbah 11:2

[6] Exodus 10:27-29

[7]Selected Poems, page 292