The beginning of Parashat Bo feels like the kind of long slide into the abyss I wrote about two weeks ago.
With the plague of fiery hailstones just ended, God sends the locusts. “They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail,” Moshe and Aharon warn Pharaoh (Shmot 10:5).
In the months after the October 27th, 2018, terror attack in Pittsburgh, I had one consistent source of solace, the site of the last hopeful thing that happened to me immediately before the attack: the newborn nursery, where scarcely an hour before the shooting started I made my rounds with my tiniest, most precious patients. I was often late to work those months, lingering extra minutes in each room, snuggling every baby for no reason other than to bask in the calm of a sleeping newborn. I would leave the house for rounds some days and tell my wife I was going to therapy.
Seventeen months later, when the pandemic began, “the surviving remnant that was left to me” after the shooting was devoured. Rounds became a nerve-wracking experience. With my outpatient practice converted swiftly and almost completely to telehealth, the hospital was now the only place I ever encountered human beings in groups. I avoided elevators, closed spaces where we assumed the virus could be most easily transmitted, in a hospital designed to actively discourage the use of stairs. Faithfully clad in my green N-95 mask, I became an obligate mouth-breather because while the mask allows oxygen to flow just fine, it only stays sealed if it is pinched tight enough to block my nose.
As a result, I huffed and puffed my way down long corridors and up ancient spiral staircases at top speed, anxious to quit the place as fast as possible. My actual visits required the additional use of a face shield, gloves, and copious amounts of Clorox wipes. I liberally borrowed patient gowns to cover my street clothes; there were no fluid resistant gowns for the pediatricians, even though we probably ought to have them for newborn rounds all the time as those little ones are liable to go off at any minute. Whatever therapeutic effect newborn rounds had once had for me evaporated. The locusts ate it.
From that perspective, the next plague, darkness, follows almost seamlessly. The plague begins, in Shmot 10:21, with the words, vayamesh hoshekh, which is widely translated into English as “darkness which can be felt.” It was a darkness so thick that it was not just an absence of light, but a positive presence unto itself, so heavy that “for three days no one could get up from where he was (Shmot 10:23). My new teacher Dan Smokler shared the description from the Torah Temimah that, “The verse comes to teach that when an Egyptian stood he could not sit, and when he sat he could not stand because of the substance/thickness of the darkness.” I think we all know how that feels now. Even my mornings in the nursery, despite being far less fearful (or far more numb) than two years ago, start with me in bed feeling thick, weighted down, and immobilized.
Historian and author Kate Bowler has spent the years since being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer at age 35 learning, writing, and podcasting about dealing with this feeling of sliding – about losing the thing you were holding on to, and eventually getting to a place where even moving took too much effort. In her 2021 book No Cure for Being Human, Bowler concludes by narrating the experience of learning that most of the people in her clinical trial, the one that allowed her access to the immunotherapy that enabled her to still be alive to write that book, had died by early 2020. Just as she was learning this, the pandemic struck. She observes:
I had nothing to do but survive the feeling that some pain is for no reason at all. It becomes clearer than ever that life is not a series of choices. So often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick. Cancer. Betrayal. Miscarriage. Job Loss. Mental Illness. A novel coronavirus.
No Cure for Being Human, p. 183
Part of the power of the Exodus narrative is the element of the Hand of God directing events, of believing that there is a carefully laid plan hundreds of years long coming to fruition. Part of the power of the Western narrative of history in our own time is the element of inexorable progress, moving toward a perfected society, a perfected humanity. It’s hard for most people to square their own experiences with these narratives. “This is the strange cruelty of suffering in America,” says Bowler, “its insistence that everything is still possible… I must accept the world as it is, or break against the truth of it: my life is made of paper walls. And so is everyone else’s (p. 186).”
Never have I reached this point in the Torah reading cycle that tells of the moment of the Exodus and felt like I was identifying more with the Egyptians than the Israelites. It’s telling that in the next parsha God will scold the Israelites for dancing and singing as the Egyptian soldiers drown in the Sea of Reeds, as if we are meant to empathize with their suffering, even as the text tells us they are “the bad guys.” And perhaps, if I can see that darkness, understand that weight, comprehend what it was to have locusts devour the little bit leftover from the hail, then that is an answer to the baseless hatred I wrote about last week. Indeed, some interpretations about the plagues is that they were lessons in empathy – for the Egyptians, to force them to feel what the Israelites had experienced on the descent into slavery. It’s hard to be angry at someone whose life is made of paper walls when yours is, too.
A year ago, I posted a blog titled, “It Ain’t Over…”, about historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s advice to allow ourselves to live in tension and not try to interpret the history we are living through while it is still happening. In that piece I quoted from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had died only a couple months earlier. This week I also want to end with Rabbi Sacks, speaking on the very subject of how to interpret a historical moment we’re in.
In his essay on Bo entitled, “The Far Horizon,” from his book Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Sacks describes an exercise in which he asks people to share what they would say to a people on the verge of leaving Egypt. Some reference the Promised Land, some adopt a tone like Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, and some cleave to Nelson Mandela’s theme of the “long walk to freedom.” Moshe’s response, according to Rabbi Sacks, does none of these things, but rather focuses on the distant future, the “far horizon” of the essay’s title. He identifies three times where Moshe invokes the education of the children, and interpreting the events of the Exodus for future generations, at the very moment that the event unfolds (Shmot 12:26-27, 13:8 and 13:14).
He leaves one out, and it is a telling omission: Shmot 10:2, the second line of this parsha, spoken right between the hail and the locusts. God tells Moshe and Aharon that the next plagues will occur, “that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them.” Rabbi Sacks, whose books include Not In God’s Name, a brilliant work dismantling the theology of vengeance and religious violence, was no triumphalist, and dancing on the graves of the Egyptians was not in his vocabulary. Nor does the Haggadah quote this line in describing the four children, referring instead to Sacks’ three and a line from D’varim.
What will we tell our children years hence about this moment, about how we survived the weight of the darkness or the locusts consuming the little we had left after the hail – or for many of us, about losing our first-born children? If we’ve learned nothing, we might continue telling our children about how it was all “the other guys’” fault, about how this policy or that failed and destroyed lives, or this person or that got what they had coming to them when they died.
Or we might learn from Rabbi Sacks, who frequently says that the most important mitzvah in the Torah, repeated 36 times by his count, is “Do not wrong the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.” You, too, were stuck in that narrow place. Your life also has paper walls. When the darkness finally lifts, it is morning. How do we know when the darkness has lifted? According to the Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:2:4, day begins (and we are allowed to say the morning Shma) when we can recognize a casual acquaintance from four cubits away. Total strangers, says Rav Hisda, we would not recognize, in daylight or darkness, even from up close, and a close friend we know even in the dark from far away. But when the dawn is just beginning to break, we can begin to see those in between, who may have been at arms-length, estranged but not strangers, and recognize that they, too, have been suffering through what we have endured. And you will tell your child on that day, “This is because of what all of us endured, together and yet apart from each other. Give the guy a break.”