Thursday, 02 Jan 2014

Written by Kath Vardi

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light

So begins this chilling poem of 1816 written by Lord Byron. He is describing the effects of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 which led to what became known as ‘the Year without a Summer’. Spewing volcanic ash into the air the sun became obscured and agriculture widely failed leading to famine and mass emigration across the US. People during the yeas of 1816- 1818 were literally living in a time of darkness – a time when the sun’s rays were unable to penetrate and warm the land. The promise of new life that accompanies the spring as winter fades, failed to materialise. The darkness and the cold of winter continued unabated.

The decent of darkness is a prominent component of the last three plagues in this week’s Parashah.  The locusts that descended upon the land not only eat the vegetation that has not been destroyed by the hail, but also bring with them a darkness that smothers the earth, hiding it from view. The very land itself is obscured, all that was green has been eaten and destroyed – the means by which a sustainable future is promised has been obliterated. God then brings the plague of darkness itself – for three days and nights the land is shrouded in darkness, a darkness so thick that it is palpable, it can be touched. The Midrash tells us that the darkness was the thickness of a Dinar, a coin, which, as we know, was also used to cover the eyes of the dead.

And  the  final plague is the ultimate plague of ‘darkness’; death itself, which God brings to all the first born of Egypt.

What does it mean to be “in the dark”? What is happening when we find ourselves unable to see what is directly in front of us? When everything around us is cloaked in darkness and we are unable to distinguish the way forward? Whether this is a darkness that has been created outside of ourselves or indeed one which we have created ourselves the effect can be one of fear, disorientation and paralysis. Unable to see where we are, we might, quite literally be rooted to the spot, unable to move for fear of stumbling into something and falling over. And what of the Israelites who whilst they sat in their houses in the light, are nonetheless unable to go outside; who on the night of that final dreadful plague wrought by God on their behalf, sit listening to the screams that emanate from outside as the Egyptians, from the most regal to the lowliest captive, discover that their firstborn child had perished. The boundary between light and dark, hope and despair, heat and cold is not always as clear as it at first appears. Sat in the light of their homes, the Israelites are nonetheless trapped; outside, on the border between light and dark, between the known and the unknown lies both fear and possibility.  This final plague of darkness paves the way to freedom for the Israelites, who will, quite literally be leaving the light of their homes and walking out into the dark – into the hidden possibilities of freedom. Sometimes the light illuminates that which we wish could remain hidden and we are left with no choice but to leave.

There is an intriguing line that is uttered as Moses warns Pharaoh of the oncoming plague of locusts. We read; ‘ Re’u!  ki ra’a neged penei’chem’  – ‘Look! Because/when there is evil in front of you’.  It is not immediately clear who is speaking to who; it could be that it is Moses warning the Egyptians, but it appears more likely that it is Pharaoh warning the Israelites, to take heed as they push forward; as there is evil, trouble, ra’a ahead. Who now sits in the light and who in the dark?! Despite the darkness which is about to smother the people of Egypt is Pharaoh able to see into the future of the Israelites?

Our text is filled with references to that which is seen – the plagues and that which cloaks, which hides – the darkness: but it is not always in the dark that intention and action is obscured.  Evil, trouble may be right in front of us, in the light as it were.

The medieval commentators are also intrigued by this line. Rashi suggests that an astronomer has told Pharaoh that a star will follow the Israelites into the desert and that this star is the symbol of impending death and murder.  Ibn Ezra comments that Pharaoh understands Moses  is obscuring the truth when he says that the Israelites merely want to travel three days into the desert in order to worship God and that indeed Moses’s intention is to lead the Israelites away entirely from Egypt and not to return. This insight invites us to ask the question; is this the story that Moses has also told to the Israelites? Do they also think that they are merely going three days into the desert in order to worship God, to then return to their lives, hard as they are, in Egypt? Who is now putting who in the dark? And who is sitting in the light? Could it be that were Moses to be entirely honest with the Israelites that they would refuse to leave? And that this sleight of hand is clearly seen by Pharaoh who issues a warning? It is this insight Ibn Ezra tells us that causes Pharaoh to pursue the Israelites to the shores of the Sea of Reeds, for indeed had Pharaoh agreed to allow the Israelites to leave altogether he would not have felt compelled to pursue them. Ibn Ezra argues that this veiling of the truth by Moses was necessary as God needs to block the ability of the Israelites to return, for the journey into freedom will not be easy.  Once the Sea of Reeds has swallowed up the Egyptian army; and the firstborn of all who remain in Egypt is dead; the fields are barren and all growth destroyed, the Israelites are left with no choice but to move forward.  But, like Lot’s wife the Israelites can’t help but look back; they later vocally bemoan their fate in the desert accusing Moses of having brought them out of the land of plenty to starve and die of thirst. And, at the foot of Mount Sinai they commit the ultimate act of nostalgia in creating the Golden Calf when, once again they find themselves in the metaphorical dark, leaderless and directionless as Moses is late in returning from a on top of the mountain.

The Israelites in their desperation and fear of the dark engage in Bryon’s ‘selfish prayer for light’ – each man reaching out for his own comfort engages in activity to the detriment of others around him. And at the foot of Mount Sinai, Pharaohs warning of ‘the evil in front of you’ culminates with the creation of a shiny, reflective golden calf – an act which ultimately condemns three thousand people to death at the hands of the Levites.

Our text is a narrative of light and shadow where all is not as it seems, one which expresses ambivalence and a distrust of what is seen. Understood this way it is not an easy text to read for it leaves us feeling disturbed and discomforted. Ending as it does with instructions for the Passover holiday with its emphasis on freedom and celebration I would like to posit that this message also extends right into the very core of our celebration of freedom – of our journey from dark into light, from Winter into Spring, but, like the Year without a Summer, these new buds of spring growth are tender and they need light and warmth in order to grow. Ibn Ezra commenting on Pharaoh’s warning writes of the Israelites that ‘they will return and encamp before the mouth of freedom’.  This comment is also most as enigmatic as Pharaoh’s warning to the Israelites and maybe he is saying something very similar. For as darkness gives way to light, and slavery gives way to freedom, we are nonetheless always in a process of transition, on the threshold. Even when we may think that we have “made it”, our situation nonetheless remains liminal, we are always returning to camp at Ibn Ezra’s ‘mouth of freedom’ at the gateway between light and dark, between seeing and disregarding.

Kath Vardi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.