Hope for Hanukkah: from 9th Plague to 1st Sliver

The ten plagues that God and Moses brought upon Egypt are usually understood to escalate in seriousness and severity. The first two plagues – blood and frogs – could be duplicated as mere tricks by Pharaoh’s magicians. The final plague – slaying of the first borns – was, literally, deadly serious. The escalation was meant to shock and persuade Pharaoh, his advisors, and the Egyptian people. With this understanding, darkness, the ninth plague, is almost as severe as death, the tenth.

At first blush, this is surprising. Darkness might be scary or unpleasant, but it does not carry disease, as earlier plagues did.  Yet this darkness was so “heavy” that people could not leave their homes, or even get up from where they sat, for days. More than that, the darkness was so deep and thick, that “a person couldn’t see his brother.”

All this sounds rather familiar.

Imagine a leader who repeatedly hardens his own heart against the call to repentance and the suffering of people in his charge. Imagine that he subverts success and spreads disease through his stubbornness. He makes agreements and then reverses himself. Facts hold little sway with him. Imagine that his egomaniacal unwillingness to admit wrongdoing or defeat endangers not only his rule, but his country.

Now suppose that people subject to such a leader endure crisis after crisis until they can hardly move. Imagine an affliction that holds them in their houses. Imagine that the worst happens, and folks no longer see one another as kith and kin. They dehumanize and distance from one another, so that others become the Other. They are blind to brotherhood.

Well, here we are, in a modern-day plague of darkness. Our vision is obscured, and we are largely stuck in our homes, unable to gather in community. Social intercourse is all-but impossible. It’s not just that we can’t move about. We can’t seem to make room for people different from ourselves – much less embrace them as our brothers and sisters.

In the Book of Exodus, God made physical the spiritual damage that people had already wrought. Egyptians had already cut themselves off from Israelites. They were already blind to their kinship and connection with the people they dehumanized. The plague, ironically, was meant to open their eyes to this nefarious condition. There was a sliver of hope that pitch darkness would enable them to see what had transpired and who they had become.

Well, again, here we are. The plague of Coronavirus has held up a mirror to each of us, enabling us to see better the inequities in our society and the true value of “essential workers” who are often underpaid, overworked, and subjected to dangerous conditions. Racism and classism in health care have been brought into sharp relief. The early days of the lock-down forced us to see how we had been spending our time – and what our priorities really were. Now, our decisions about indoor gatherings during the winter likewise reflect our values back to us.

And all this happened because of a heavy darkness that befell us. It’s a measurable, physical darkness – with over 120,000 hospitalized and 280,000 dead. And it’s an inner, spiritual darkness – a new, heavy awareness of oppression, inequity, and disconnection from one another that touches heart and soul.

But noticing that you have been asleep or blind is the beginning of wakefulness and vision. And here comes the Light!

The Light of Hanukkah is approaching. It increases, by grace, just a little each night. The miracle is that that we had – and have – just enough inner and outer resources to get us through, and help us spread the Light.

The Light of a vaccine is approaching, too. It offers so much hope. The miracle is that scientists, philanthropists, pharmaceutical companies, and governments across the world have cooperated, with remarkable transparency, for the good of all.

It should not take a 10th plague – with yet more slaying and dying – to wake us up. Opening our eyes to the darkness and the Light will hopefully be enough to motivate each of us – including the political leaders we must hold accountable – to make positive changes.

If Hanukkah teaches us anything, it teaches that we can be victorious – against the odds, against the empowered and entitled who would harm us – if only we will band together. Literally, it was a band of brothers who defeated intolerance. And it will be a band of brothers and sisters who will defeat injustice and the Coronavirus.

It’s no accident that Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that bridges two months. We begin to celebrate it in total night-sky darkness, and we also celebrate when we see that first sliver of moonlight. May the Light of hope grow in you, as the light of Hanukkah increases from night to night. May you find brothers and sisters with whom to share and spread divine vision and Light.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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