- Posted by Jen Gubitz
- On February 4, 2017
- 0 Comments
There are these images of them: they are bedraggled, in ragged clothing, hair disheveled, shoulders drooping, dark circles holding up their eyes. There are these images of them: they are holding one another, they are huddling around the fire, grasping at its heat and its light amid the plague of thick, thick darkness.
Will he let us go this time, they wonder? Will they let us go? Will they let us in? And who will watch over us?
There are these images of them. But of what era? Of what era are the bedraggled, ragged, disheveled, drooping, holding, huddling? Of what era are those who grasp in the darkness holding onto the fire’s light.
Holding onto the light, while the Egyptians grasped in the darkness, the Israelites prayed and prepared for their departure. When God told Moses to hold out his arm toward the sky, a darkness had descended on Egypt. The 9th plague was so dark and so thick that the Egyptians could not see one another and for three days none could even move about. The darkness was so dark and so thick, Nachmanides tells us, it was “not merely the absence of sunlight, so that the sun set and it was dark as night, but it was thick like a fog descending from the sky.” “It was so thick,” says Ibn Ezra, “it could be touched.” So thick even said Gersonides “they had to stop up their mouths and nostrils to make sure they did not breath” it in. It was so thick, so palpable, so poisonous even “that light could not get in” taught Sforno, so dark “that even a lit up flair could not make a dent in the darkness.” It was a different kind of darkness this time for the Egyptians.
But the Israelites, Torah tells us, all of the IsraelLIGHTS had light in their dwellings. Some translations say they even enjoyed their light while their oppressors sat in the dark. It is in this moment that the power shifts, the proverbial electrical wires entangle, and the images of them are flipped. And those Israelite slaves who knew only life in its darkest existence now hold the light, while the Egyptians grope for but a glimmer.
So what did the Israelites do with their light? We can assume they prepared once more to depart Egypt and maybe they rested from back-breaking work. Maybe they even found a glimmer of hope. The Midrash commentary on Exodus (Exodus Rabbah 14:3) teaches that they did prepare for their departure. For God had told them not to leave Egypt empty handed, so they went to their slave-masters’ homes. And because they had light which followed them to any dwelling place, they could see the riches, they could see the silver and gold and clothing in each Egyptian home. But the Egyptians dwelling in darkness did not know the Israelites had light. They did not know the Israelites could see within their homes and they denied they had such items of value. But they agreed to lend them if only they had them. So for the Israelites with their light even within the dark dwellings of Egyptians – it was as if a flash sale, a blue light special. And when they would leave Egypt, they would leave with their oppressors’ riches in tow.
But it was not yet to be, even with that plague of thick darkness. It was not yet to be for the IsraeLIGHTS and their light. And the Torah teaches that after God taught Moses and the people about the Passover observance, God sat vigil over them during the next and final plague. As firstborns throughout the land perished, God sat vigil, God sat sh’mirah as a guardian. And lambs’ blood smeared on their doorposts, like mezuzot, saved the Israelites firstborn from death. Each Israelite family huddled and held one another in their homes amid that long night of crying out in Egypt. They were all bedraggled, ragged, disheveled, drooping. Their lights were dimmer but the light of hope still illuminated the dark circles holding up their sad eyes.
There are these images of them amid plagues of darkness and death. But of what era?
Of every era. In every era.
There are these images of them: if you search images of “people huddling around fires,” amid images of campers making s’mores or a bonfire on the beach, what you will find is images of them.
Them = from all eras, them = of all ethnicities and ethos, for all of existence. Even the once enlightened, even the once elite, even the archetypal ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman.’ No matter the era, they are all there holding each other as huddled masses looking for light.
The Israelites had light, which is I think to say – they knew suffering and pain. But the Midrash about how they used their light, though crafted to cast a shadow over the Egyptians’ untruths of their treasures, sheds a dark moment on the Israelites, too. I wish we had a Midrash of how they used their light differently. I wish they could have spread their light – the light of their wisdom and the shadows of harsh experiences – to teach their oppressors and to reveal their human faces to their oppressors. I would want a Midrash where in the light, the Egyptians could truly see their fellow human.
While few would want to recuperate the acts of the Egyptians and Pharaoh, we can recuperate that Midrash for ourselves. We can and we do and we are using light differently. Not because of an enlightenment to the plight of the refugee because we were refugees, not because of an enlightenment to the enslaved and downtrodden because we were slaves… In fact, we are to be careful to use this light differently – and acknowledge that this light is not solely OURS lest ever this sad enlightenment we may know be twisted into some unknowable elitism. Rather, we are to use the light we have to highlight stories of those who suffer, to kindle compassion in those whose fears eclipse empathy, AND to take that light with us to guide our path as we descend to those places of darkness that desperately need electrical rewiring and new wicks and more light.
Because we know that in every era those images of them are such that when the power shifts, the images flip, the electrical wires entangle, and fires rage. And Them becomes Us. And Other becomes Self. And You becomes Me.
But here’s the thing we have yet to learn in our world: there is enough light for all of us.