Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pesah: Light from the Darkness

Light from the Darkness
Thoughts on Pesah 2020
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The last three plagues which were leveled upon the Egyptians shared a common theme: darkness. The eighth plague, the locust, “darkened the ground” as it rained down upon Egypt, making it “impossible to see the earth” (Shemot 10:16, 5). The ninth plague’s “darkness over the land of Egypt” was so strong that “no one saw his fellow and no one rose from where he was three days” (21, 23). And the tenth and final plague, makat bekhorot, took place at “about midnight” (11:4) – a time of absolute darkness. Whereas the previous seven plagues seemingly happened in the light of day, these last three were pronounced by a blinding darkness. Why?

At some point during these last three plagues, a peculiar encounter took place between Moshe and Pharaoh. Responding to Moshe’s demand that the entire nation accompany him in leave of Egypt, Pharaoh said: “May God only be with you the way I would send you off with your little ones! For evil [ra’ah] is before your faces” (10:10). What did Pharaoh mean by the “evil” that lay ahead? Was he actually looking out for the safety of the nation? Citing from a midrash, Rashi suggested that Pharaoh was in fact referring to the Egyptian sun god, “Ra,” and warning that Am Yisrael’s departure would end in doom, at the hands of the “all-powerful” Ra, god of the Sun.[1] 

Throughout ancient Egyptian history, the sun god was considered the head of the pantheon. “It was regarded as the first king of the land from whom all the pharaohs were descended,” Nahum Sarna wrote.[2] The Egyptians believed that Ra was the “creator god.” They understood creation as an act of differentiation, naming and definition. And since light allows the distinction of one thing from another, they considered light to be the creative power that maintains the world.[3] “Thus, the last three plagues should be seen as an attack on the Egyptian’s most central beliefs,” R. Ari Kahn wrote, as they “were direct attacks on the Egyptian sun god.”[4]

Fascinatingly, in the very midst of what the Egyptians had experienced as the dread of darkness, “All Bnei Yisrael had light in their dwelling places” (10:23). And a similar scene repeated itself at Yam Suf – “And there was the cloud and the dark, and it lit up the night” (14:20). While the Egyptian’s vision at the sea was obscured by the pillar of cloud at night, Am Yisrael marched forward to the light of the pillar of fire.[5] Furthermore contrasting the Egyptians’ experience of the their god’s demise, it was specifically at Yam Suf that – finally – “Yisrael saw the great hand that God had performed against Egypt” (14:31).

What emerges, then, is that Am Yisrael’s first national experience of God’s illuminating light arose in the context of a pervasive darkness. Whereas the Egyptians instinctively understood darkness as utter destruction, Am Yisrael experienced it as the perfect setting to behold God’s emergence.

Jewish mystical tradition maintains that God’s initial creation of light “emerged from the darkness which was hewed out by the strokes of the Most Secret.”[6] He first surrounded the world with darkness, “until light emanated, split the darkness, and radiated.”[7] The kabbalists explain that the “light from darkness” is in fact a concept which underlies the whole of existence: “There is no light except that which issues from darkness…There is no worship of the blessed Holy One except from darkness, and there is no good except from evil.”[8]

The great psychotherapist Wilfred Bion followed this notion of drawing forth light from darkness in his clinical practice. He would first “cast a beam of intense darkness”,” by allowing the client to obscure their issue by means of incoherent thoughts and misunderstanding. Bion would only then chime in, suggesting a thought or insight which could “glitter in the darkness.”[9] And while contemporary psychotherapist Estelle Frankel admits to feeling threatened at times in her life and practice by “the challenge of not knowing,” she finds consolation in the wise and humorous words of actress Naomi Newman: “Nothing natural or interesting goes in a straight line. As a matter of fact, it is the quickest way to the wrong place. And don’t pretend you know where you are going. Because if you know where you are going, that means you’ve been there, and you are going to end up exactly where you came from.”[10]

Our current lives feel increasingly threatened by the “darkness of Egypt.” We are overwhelmed by a world of uncertainty. Unable to predict tomorrow’s news and events, we are driven to panic and stress. Learning from our history, however, we should instead be reminded that our greatest discoveries have emerged from the very depths of darkness.

Our tradition teaches that there always exists a light, flickering ever so dimly, in the distance. We might only catch sight of it, however, by first enduring the darkness. Remembering that Am Yisrael found hope in the same darkness that led the Egyptians to despair, we must dispel our current anxiety and courageously march forward into the darkness. We will do so, of course, in anxious anticipation of the illuminating discoveries that loom therein.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 10:10, s.v. re’u.
[2] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 79.
[3] Racheli Shalom-Hen, in The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 58.
[4] R. Ari D. Kahn, Echoes of Eden: Sefer Shemot (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 84.
[5] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 14:20, s.v. va-ya’er.
[6] Zohar I:31b. Cited and translated in Gershom Scholem, Zohar: The Book of Splendor (New York, NY, 1967), pg. 6. See, as well, Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 1:4, s.v. va-yar.
[7] Zohar I:30b. Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition vol. 1 (Stanford, CA, 2004), pg. 183.
[8] Zohar II:184a. Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition vol. 6 (Stanford, CA, 2011), pg. 33.
[9] See James Grotstein, A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis (New York, NY, 2007).
[10] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 165.