By: Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, Rabbi Emeritus,
, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and past President of
Association of Reform Zionists of America
“Seeing Beyond the Blackberries”
There is a wondrous cultural center/restaurant in Jaffa that is known as
(Please Touch!). It houses a theater in which performances are carried out by actors who are blind and deaf; a caf? in which deaf waiters communicate with customers through sign language; and “Blackout,” a restaurant that is absolutely and totally pitch black, in which the waiters are blind, and in which customers must intensify their senses of taste and touch and smell in order to enjoy their meals. Na La-Ga’at provides incredible experiences to all who are interested in expanding their understanding of the very nature of what it means to encounter the world in which we live.
How precious it is to be able to see, to perceive colors, to discern distances, to reflect upon facial expressions, to marvel at the infinite varieties of differences and similarities in all aspects of the physical universe. To be able to compare and contrast. To absorb a key aspect of the vocabulary of human emotions. To avoid danger even as we are beckoned toward safer places.
“Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:22-23; Revised Plaut Torah Commentary).
The 9th Plague was all about the inability to see.
Those of us who enjoy trying to tie biblical events, so-called ’miracles,’ in with the natural world and thus to explain them, describe this Plague as nothing other (and no more than) a khamsin. The renowned biblical commentator Wikipedia describes a khamsin as a storm that can last for hours, carrying “great quantities of sand and dust from the deserts, with a speed up to 140 kilometers per hour (in which) humidity in that areas drops below 5%.” Temperatures can be intense rising above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The word khamsin itself is derived from an Arabic word meaning 50 – because traditionally a khamsin usually occurs during a 50-day period in the spring. (Think of the word khamishim in Hebrew).
I have experienced more than one khamsin in Jerusalem. It surely isn’t pleasant. The driven sand penetrates the most tightly sealed windows of houses and cars. It can coat one’s skin and even begin to burrow beneath the skin’s outer layer. It’s hard to breathe. Vision drops to close to zero. As the world confronts ‘darkness at noon,’ the body tenses so as to fight off the strangling and blinding aggressor. Our thoughts narrowly focus on finding a refuge. Survival. It can be a terrifying encounter.
Was the 9th Plague a khamsin? Maybe.
Or perhaps each of the Ten Plagues was intended to be a metaphorical assault against one of Egypt’s major gods. The god Horus was a sky god whose right eye was representative of the sun and whose left eye was representative of the moon. So by denying all light, by casting the whole world into absolute darkness, by denying both the sun and the moon their life-giving power – then the God of Israel was demonstrating the capacity to defeat the very foundation of Egypt’s might. Each Plague was a separate battle. Each Plague was a victory for the God of Israel. Maybe.
Maybe that 9th Plague was really a moment to give Pharaoh a final opportunity to think through his options – a teaching moment, if you will. I sometimes do my best thinking in the middle of the night, in the darkness, in absolute silence, in a state somewhat close to sensory deprivation. Just me and whatever has chosen to race through my mind. Egypt has suffered unbelievable losses. The Egyptian people were on their knees. In the silent, deadly darkness Pharaoh ponders his few remaining options: My throne is shaky. My advisors have nothing useful to say. Should I just let this rabble go wherever it is they want to go? After all, I can send my armies after them later. But no! Never! I am Egypt. I am a god. I bow before no one. No one! Maybe.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” (
Seeing is far more than a physical act, and that is why the Midrash postulates that that there is an
, a hidden light, which, once revealed, will allow humankind to see from one end of the universe to another. In the presence of this light, no truths will be hidden. In the presence of this light, all doubts will be resolved. In the presence of this light, no deception can stand. But God does not believe that we are yet worthy of this light. It awaits us. It awaits our willingness to embrace Shalom, Tzedek, Chesed, Mishpat – Peace, Righteousness, Acts of Loving-kindness, Justice. Our actions will make us worthy.
Dr. Eitan Fishbane blogged (Huffington Post, 12/08/2011) that “Divinity (itself) is best characterized as wondrous light that shines with the mystery of all that was, all that is and all that shall be.” That is what Micah (7:8) meant when he wrote: “Though I dwell in darkness, Adonai is my light.” God is light. God is the arousal of awareness. God is that which allows people to see in the darkest of nights, in the stormiest of decades, in the most devastating of centuries.
What does God want us to see? That question has an infinity of possible responses. But for me, I find my answer in Exodus 10:22-23. What were the Egyptians unable to see?
Ish et achiv
. Each person could not see that every other person was a brother or a sister. THAT is the most terrifying blindness of all. Without the
, that wondrous light, without a clear moral vision, the others we encounter are objects. Things. Devoid of moral significance. So we can hate them. We can ignore them. We can deny them their rights. We can label them by color, by economic rank, by gender– so that we can turn our backs on them and discard them. Moral blindness renders us deaf to the cries. Moral blindness takes from us the very flavor of universal freedom. Moral blindness turns us into insensate stone.
Moral blindness is a khamsin of the soul.
We are Reform and Progressive Jews. We hold fast to a Torah that is
, light. When the Plague of Darkness strikes, when a khamsin rages not only during 50 days in the Spring, when the gods people worship are but twisted fragments of that which we truly need to survive in our humanity, when the blatantly obvious is subjected to denial, when truth is devalued, when caring is condemned, when justice is made contingent – we are those who are committed to redoubling our efforts to be worthy of that light that is Divinity. That is just who we are.
May we prove worthy of the challenges of our day.