Community Rabbi Corner, Jan. 11, 2019

Rabbi Doug Sagal
Temple Emanu-El of Westfield
Westfield, NJ
Parashat Bo

In the Torah portion of Bo, the final three plagues come upon the Egyptians and at long last, the people of Israel are freed from bondage.

The ninth plague is the plague of darkness. Exodus 10:21 states: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” 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 get up from where he was, but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.

The Torah commentator Avraham Sofer (d. 1871) known as the “Ktav Sofer” teaches regarding this verse that there is special significance to the phrase “People could not see one another.” He argues that this is a metaphor for the entire experience of the Israelites in Egypt. The Egyptians, he said, could not “see” the Israelites as fellow human beings; rather, they saw them as less than human and therefore felt entitled to mistreat them. When people do not “see” one another as fully human, he says, then “darkness descends” on the land.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves in America at the beginning of 2019. Immigrants, Jews, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ citizens and yes, even women are not seen as “fully human,” deserving of the rights and respect that should be enjoyed by everyone. As a result, darkness has fallen on our land and violence, discrimination, and persecution has been the result. The late Torah teacher Nechama Liebowitz said that the entire experience of slavery in Egypt was merely to teach the Jewish people empathy and caring for others. We have a duty, during these dark days, to insist that all people are treated equally and with compassion, so light may once again shine upon our nation.