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The quality of darkness

The ninth plague literally left the Egyptians in the dark; for the Israelites, it simply cloaked the coming light of redemption
Illustrative. Massacre of the Firstborn and Egyptian Darkness, c. 1490, Spanish hand-colored woodcut. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.716/Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Massacre of the Firstborn and Egyptian Darkness, c. 1490, Spanish hand-colored woodcut. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.716/Wikipedia)

A lot of us are alone for Pesach and there are many who, according to the merit of their years, if not their spirits, are spending the seder alone for their own safety. I aim to relate to this unnatural isolation and what it can mean not to see others during this time, and not to be seen.

The plagues inflicted on the Egyptians cumulatively lead up to a depth of darkness that penetrates the core of the Egyptians’ physical and mental states. From the misery of lack of drinking water (the first plague of blood), lack of access to food (caused by the plagues of pestilence, hail and locusts) to the darkness of the last plagues, we see a nation that loses its control over its autonomy, over its ability to maintain its own governance, and its ability to see itself as capable of change.

The eighth plague of locusts, at Exodus 10.5 and 10.15, covers the face of the earth, וְלֹא יוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, and disables sight. The subsequent disarming darkness of the ninth plague and the mental darkness incurred through the devastating decimation of the tenth show a degeneration in the ability of Egyptians to see the other – and to escape the isolation God is putting them in. How does this darkness impact the Jews so differently from the Egyptians? The Jews are not suffering the plagues but they are still witness to them. The blindness inflicted on the Egyptians is mirrored in the Jewish people’s exit from Egypt in the middle of the night. Indeed, we recount on the seder night the miracles that God performed for us in the middle of the night, בחצי הלילה. As we break forth from the darkness of Egyptian servitude, we walk towards seeing the light of servitude towards God alone.

When the Egyptians wake up to the shocking midnight slaying of their first born sons and daughters, we, the Jewish people, have already began our own flight from the darkness of Egypt and are on our way to cross the sea. The tribe of Jacob have to reach a point of intense spiritual darkness after 210 years of slavery from which we call out to God. So too, the pinnacle of the plagues – the opportunities for return to God for the Egyptians – is given in the form of crushing darkness. In the midst of this darkness for the Egyptians, we are told that the Jews had light in their homes. Of course, you need to be in the right place to witness this light, within one’s doors, ensconced from the dangers outside.

We see the path to darkness for the Egyptians as a path which is followed by the Jews too, except that the end points for each party do not match. The Egyptians here descend irreversibly into darkness and we travel through it and out of it. This disparity in destiny is the keystone in how to relate to the darknesses.

For in our recollection on the seder night, of all that happened in the middle of that night’s darkness, unlike the response of the Egyptians, we recall how we were able to make sense of the lack of light around us. We find a path through the darkness if not out of it. As we splice through the thick of the blackness, leaving Egypt, we also manage to form limits to the reaches of this darkness.  As soon as darkness is something that can be traversed, it is something that can be contained.

Jewish law is lovingly obsessed with limits, containment and the amount of trust we can put in what we see with our own two eyes. When, weekly, we commemorate the separation of light from dark at havdala, we’re not only recollecting the creation of the world or a good versus bad duality; we’re looking back to the time we managed to break through the darkness of Egypt even as it felled others.

Bidud, quarantine, isolation, is used in Leviticus for the person sent outside the camp for impurity purposes. It is also used for the meaning of being inside a community, but distanced from others. In Lamentations, 1.1 אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם Oh, how this city once populous sits alone, we lament the desolation of the once thronging populace. Bidud, as with any concept of being alone, contains the idea of knowing you could have been with others but instead you are without any company.

It might feel in dark moments for those alone that we are no longer seen, that the plague of locusts has covered the face of our land and our autonomy is obliterated. Unlike the plague which afflicts the Egyptians, the darkness we are in is not a blindness that renders one unable to see the other. Rather, it is a darkness that we honor. We keep safe in our homes, forbidden to leave, just as we were adjured to while eating the korban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice, awaiting the time to carve through the darkness a path to being together once more.

Pesach is a time for staying home (as opposed to Sukkot and sukka-hopping) and fostering our own light within ourselves before we burst out of our homes at the appointed time. Perhaps, as we sit in quarantine and isolation at home, we can examine in what light we view the others around us when we have the chance. It is legitimate to feel the misery that can come with isolation, for it is a state that is designed for God, not for mortals, as it says, Haazinu 32:12 ה’ בָּדָ֣ד יַנְחֶ֑נּוּ וְאֵ֥ין עִמּ֖וֹ אֵ֥ל נֵכָֽר׃ , God alone did guide them, No alien deity alongside. The singularity of God is that God is always alone. While it is true that certain facets of godliness are reflected in the yeshiva shel mata, like the idea that God also has tefillin, the state of bidud, isolation, is not one which is natural to man. Yet, God goes into exile with us wherever we are. We were alone in our houses in Egypt. While the Egyptians were experiencing their own blindness and we were working up the power to break through out of the darkness, we were alone – and God was with us.

I wish that all feel the light glimmering in our homes on seder night and that the path through the darkness, bursting the confines of Egyptian gloom to a miraculous recovery will be swift and for all to witness.

In particular, for all those who feel alone on leil shimurim, a night on which God guards each and every person, I think of David haMelech’s words after great distress:

בְּשָׁלוֹם יַחְדָּו אֶשְׁכְּבָה וְאִישָׁן כִּי-אַתָּה ה’ לְבָדָד לָבֶטַח תּוֹשִׁיבֵנִי

Safe and sound, I lie down and sleep, for You alone, God, keep me secure (Tehillim 4.9)

May you have a healthy, joyous, light-filled Pesach.

About the Author
Tikva Blaukopf Schein lives in Jerusalem, where she runs Torah-poetry slams, teaches, and learns. She is enaged in doctoral research at Bar Ilan University on laughter. Her BA is from Oxford University in Classical and Oriental Studies.
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