Education is a major topic of conversation in our personal, communal, and national conversations these days. Political, cultural, and spiritual leaders discuss the best ways to educate our youngsters and use our limited resources. Controversies around charter schools, common curriculum, “no child left behind,” standardized curricula and national standards, pre-K funding, the place of values in the public schools, and many other important issues dominate the pages of thought journals.
Numerous sources in the rabbinic tradition indicate that in Talmudic times children entering school were first educated in the intricate laws of the book of Vayikra, the laws that begin to be presented in our parasha this week. This, at first blush, appears to be a strange curricular choice. Why not begin the educational journey of the young Jewish child with Bereishit and the creation narrative or the stories of Abraham or the national narrative of the Exodus?
Three reasons may be suggested that possibly played a role in the curricular choices of the ancient rabbis.
1. The detailed laws of the korbanot (the sacrificial system) and the laws of ritual purity, while technical and intricate, are concrete and tangible. They are well defined, involving specific actions, routine activities, and clearly specified models of behavior and activity.
In contrast to the abstract and difficult questions and issues that lie at the heart of the Biblical story of creation and the garden of Eden, which touch on deep questions of the origin of the universe, the nature of God, good and evil, free will and choice, and other sophisticated matters, the laws of the sacrificial system and its corollaries such as the laws of kashrut, which appear later in the book of Vayikra, are concrete, defined, detailed requirements, and mitzvot. Children can point to the animals, talk about numbers, and engage with the realia around them.
For most young minds the first encounter with Judaism must be concrete, well defined, and involve clear parameters and experiences. Philosophical explorations and even historical narrative are best suited for the next stage in the development of the child as she grows and matures. In those early years of school, the most impactful lessons are those that are hands-on and connect them to the living pulsating world of concrete experience of Jewish life like Kiddush, Shabbat candles, megillah reading, giving charity, and the whole range of Jewish behaviors that shape the contours of a rich and engaged Jewish life.
2. In many ancient cultures the entire system of the Temple, of religious devotion and worship, was an elitist one. Priests alone were given access to the special, restricted knowledge of religious service, while the average person was kept in the dark. It was presented as some mysterious, esoteric knowledge only available to the initiates.
In sharp contrast, the book of Vayikra declares that God commanded Moses to present the laws to all of the children of Israel. This bespeaks an almost democratic access to knowledge about the laws of the Temple and sacrifices. All Jews are given entry into understanding all parts of the Torah and there are no hidden mysteries that only some elite members can access. The Torah records that the Torah is an inheritance — “morasha” — to all of Israel and each and every Jew can learn and imbibe its details and content.
In this spirit, the rabbis may have specifically wanted to drive home this message from an early age. Every Jewish child from early youth is educated in the details of the law of the Temple service. There is no area of Torah that is off limits to any Jew, and that message is brought home from the very first day of schooling.
3. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the leading teachers of Mussar of the mid-twentieth century, noted in a celebrated essay that the word for love in Hebrew, “ahava,” is connected to the Aramaic word “hav,” which means to give. Expanding on that theme, he notes that deep love is often associated with a desire to give to the other rather than looking to take or expressing demands upon the other. This is true in marriage and in our most intimate and joyful relationships. Love often grows and expands with the investment of time and effort that one expends in giving and investing in the other.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and chancellor of Yeshiva University, notes that in Judaism, “More than believing in God we are commanded to love Him… the question is how shall we express it and enhance it: And the answer is ‘when one offers a korban la-Hashem’ — you must learn to give to God. When we give of our time by getting up early to pray in a minyan, when we give of our substance to the causes of the Almighty, such as a synagogue or school or charity, when we give of our attention and concern to Him and his people, then the process of giving enhances the love we bear for Him within.’ And it is this message of a commitment to give of oneself and one’s abilities, time, resources, and feelings that we want even our youngest to begin to imbibe and absorb as they begin their journey to learn and experience the presence of the Divine and their relationship to God, the Torah, and the Jewish people.
At a recent community discussion with other local rabbis about the future of the Jewish people, I remarked that just as people buy OtterBoxes for their iPhones to protect the valuable interior electronics, it is up to us to create our own metaphoric Jewish OtterBoxes. This will help us keep our Judaism from becoming too battered to effectively and purposefully function.
The special reading for this week’s Shabbat Shekalim presents a commandment that at face value appears somewhat irrelevant to our 21st century societal and sanctuary structure: the Biblical obligation of a half shekel annual tax which males over the age of 20 are required to give to the construction of the Tabernacle. This portion is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar so that every adult man would have a month’s notice to prepare the money, which due on the first of Nissan during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The question is, without the Temple, how can we practically fulfill this mitzvah today? Even the Mishnah Berurah (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) ruled that the only way we can perform this mitzvah is through the reading of Parashat Shekalim during this Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar.
Perhaps, however, we can perform this mitzvah using an “OtterBox approach” of preserving its spirit, by both accounting for the community and contributing to the community’s welfare.
In an important disagreement with the halachic decisor Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), the Magen Avraham disputes the Rema’s assertion based directly on the Torah that this mitzvah was intended for men over the age of 20. He writes in concurrence with the Rambam and the Ramban that the Biblical mitzvah to contribute a half-shekel to the Temple applies to all those who have reached the age of bnai mitzvah.
There are still many people for whom a divine presence needs to be nurtured through communal giving. That’s why this time of year (Shabbat Shekalim) should be a time to help inspire our children to contribute the equivalent “half-shekel” to our greater community. After all, children are among those in the Torah who are not commanded to contribute. When Parashat Shekalim is read, many of our children also celebrate the 100th day of school. What if, on the 100th day of school, all of our schools, private and public, collect a quantity of 100 of household items (toiletries, food, and clothing) and give them to 100 area families in need?
In the spirit of the Magen Avraham and full disclosure, that is exactly what one of our students at Solomon Schechter did. He has successfully galvanized our entire school community to give their “half-shekel” in the form of shampoo, toilet paper, and other personal-care items to 100 area families. For more information about this inspiring project, please go to our Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/ssdsbergen.
In explaining Rav Kook’s discussion of this special parasha, Rabbi Chanan Morrison writes that through the giving of the half-shekel, “a society may be unified in two ways: in deed and in thought. ‘Unity in deed’ refers to practical actions to assist one’s neighbors or to contribute to the nation as a whole. ‘Unity in thought’ means concern for fellow citizens and love for one’s people. For Israel, ‘unity in thought’ is the ultimate goal, while ‘unity in deed’ is a means to bolster and strengthen it.”
Let our commandment to each contribute our individual “half-shekel” unify us in thought and let the actions of our youth inspire us to be united in deed regardless of our affiliation. That is an unbreakable OtterBox.
My siblings and I grew up in wooded suburbs abundant with lakes and fields. In winter, I skated, the fantasy-child in me carving the most graceful of figure-eights. And I skied — oh I loved skiing. In summer, I swam competitively and dove from the low and high boards. I vividly recall trying my first half-gainer (you jump off the board facing forward, then do a back dive) — and came too close to the diving board, skimming my nose. I was terrified. But like any aspiring athlete, trembling yet determined, I came up and dove again.
I went to Hebrew school, became bat mitzvah, was a gymnast in high school, and yes, I was a cheerleader. I also read, painted and sculpted, made the honor roll. I went to high school in Israel for 6 months, then an inspired summer at Urban Mitzvah Corps engaged in community service.
I was a well-rounded, high-achieving Jewish girl. I grew up realizing — even with the double standard of men and women in those days — that I could aspire to anything. Over time, I came to understand that what I did was shaped by who I was becoming. My character would guide my choices and achievements; and my character was informed by the well-being of my soul.
Maimonides teaches: the body is the vessel for the soul. Certainly if the body is overstressed or damaged, so is the person. But the person is not the vessel. The person is the content: one’s spiritual essence. That essence needs as much, if not more attention than one’s body, if one is to age into wiser expression.
In last week’s Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses carried down the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Weren’t they incredibly heavy? Tradition holds that the sacred Hebrew letters absorbed the weight of the stones so Moses could carry them. The dreadful sin of the golden calf caused the letters to fly off, and the stones became so densely weighted that they dropped from Moses’s hands.
This week in Parashat Vayakhel, we study the first verse: “Moses then gathered the entire people of Israel.” “The entire people” is specified as the Israelites. Yet there had been others at Sinai, too: the so-called mixed multitudes — other people that had left Egypt alongside the Israelite slaves. Rabbi Hiyya taught that the mixed multitudes were the ones who had constructed the golden calf; and subsequently, Moses banished them. Only the Israelites were assembled now to hear the mitzvah of observing Shabbat and the instructions for building the Mishkan, the vessel for God’s dwelling.
Rabbi Hiyya reveals the wisdom that before our people could absorb the mitzvot of Shabbat and the Mishkan, they had to be released from the influence of the mixed multitudes. Otherwise, they couldn’t have heard a true, spiritual call.
Who are the mixed multitudes around us? Those who want to convince us that the spiritual doesn’t matter. Perhaps: those deride and prevent Shabbat and a gathering place for Jewish community.
I found my true voice on Shabbat amidst my people. It wasn’t a Shabbat of restriction, but the Shabbat of celebration: sweet challah, music and joyous prayer, Torah wisdom, with family and friends, fellow Jews who laughed and nourished one another.
The mixed multitudes are those in our lives who scoff at our desire — no, our essential need — to refresh our souls. Such people lack a spiritual language.
Without Shabbat and without a Mishkan, we Jews will lose our spiritual language and grow mute and heavy as stone. We will fall and shatter. We need one another. I need you. That’s why Moses gathered us all together. His first message after the golden calf was: “We can’t do this alone. The pressures are huge. Remember this going forward: Come together.”
It’s why we join for Shabbat.
And it’s why we build synagogues, the places that shelter us from the storm. We create the Mishkan for ourselves and for each other. This Shabbat let’s join in our sanctuaries to celebrate what really matters in our lives. Step away from task and time. Step into love and life.
Here’s how the opening verses of our Torah portion read in full: “Moses then gathered the entire people of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest…’”
We are created in the image of God, the Torah tells us. What it does not tell us is what that means, especially considering that God has no “image” in the traditional sense. Maimonides, the Rambam, made this his Third Fundamental Principle of Jewish belief (see his introduction to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1): God, he said, “has no body at all, actually or potentially.”
Yet the Torah is clear that “God created man in His image” (Genesis 1:27). As such, we need to determine what God’s “image” means.
The “image” of Him, in the first chapter of the Torah is that of Creator. God created a world that was “very good,” but not perfect; He then created humankind and gave it the task of making the world better still.
In other words, the “image of God” means we are to emulate Him. We are to “walk in all His ways at all times,” as Deuteronomy 19:9 puts it. (Similar expressions are found throughout the Torah and the Tanach, the Bible.)
To “walk in His ways” has multiple meanings. The most obvious, of course, is to obey His commandments. Another is to examine His behavior and try to emulate it as best we can.
Contrary to popular belief, God is not perfect. We are told in various biblical verses that His ways are perfect, His teachings are perfect, His justice is perfect, His understanding is perfect, but never are we told that He Himself is perfect. In fact, time and again we see that He is not. How else can we explain the Torah’s statement (Genesis 6:6), “And the Lord regretted that He had made the human on earth”? God made a mistake and He regretted that mistake. A “perfect” God does not make mistakes. Our God does — but He also owns up to His mistakes and acts to correct them.
Thus, to emulate God, we humans must own up to our mistakes, regret having made them, and then act to correct them.
Sometimes, to correct a mistake requires compromise. The truth is, all of God’s mistakes involve His expectations for His unique creation: people. The first time they do not live up to His expectations, He sends a Great Flood, only to realize that, too, was a mistake. Instead, He adopts a compromise. Because humankind had demonstrated a lust for blood — especially killing animals for food — God compromises by allowing humans to eat meat (see Genesis 9:3), albeit within defined parameters.
This week, in Ki Tisa, we see one of God’s most glaring compromises. He said nothing about sacrifices when He appeared at Sinai, and actually never raised the subject before, with Moses, or with any of the patriarchs. While He did not prohibit sacrifices, however — itself an apparent compromise — He did ask that the Israelites keep it simple. “Make for Me an altar of earth,” or of “unhewn stone” (Exodus 20:22-23), He declares. All He wants is for Israel to behave in a certain way, and to demonstrate to the world at large how God wants all humankind to behave.
This week, however, He sees that Israel is not prepared to accept His message. The people create a Golden Calf and offer sacrifices to it, because they are hopelessly stuck in the ways of the pagan world from which they emerged. God, therefore, puts forth a huge compromise: He instructs Israel to create a portable sanctuary. Soon, He will detail the rules for the sacrificial cult that will go with it. He wants a relationship with Israel and the only way that is possible is if He is prepared to make concessions, as indeed He is.
We all tend to dig in our heels when we think we are in the right. Yet, if we want a relationship with others, we need to emulate God. If He is willing to compromise, so must we be willing to do so.
After all, we are created in His image.
A nearly 2,000-year-old source of latent discomfort has surfaced yet again in our greater community with the recent decision by two modern Orthodox yeshivot — the SAR Academy High School and the Ramaz Upper School — to permit female students to wear tefillin. Opinions have run the gamut, ranging from supporting different forms of worshiping God when there is halachic argument to support it to seeing it as little more than cherry-picking the sources.
This debate cuts to the heart of the way we deliberate about our ritual practices and how those practices can evolve over time while remaining rooted in halachah.
In this week’s parasha, we read in Exodus 25:8-9, “V’asu li mikdash vishachanti bitocham. Kichol asher ani mareh otcha eit tavnit hamishkan v’eit tavnit kol keilav, vichein ta’asu.” (“They shall make a sanctuary for me, and then I will dwell among them. According to all that I am showing you — the form of the sanctuary and the form of all its vessels — and so should you make [it].” Rashi explains that the addition of the letter vav in the penultimate word in the verse implies that future generations will build their sanctuaries and its vessels according to the tavnit (form) of the sanctuary, or Mishkan. According to Biblical scholars, the Hebrew word tavnit refers to a reproduction of a material entity that exists in reality or as an archetype or model.
Today’s important tavnit, the important and critical debate of the issue of women and tefillin, finds its origins in the Mishnah (35-220 c.e.). Mishnah Berachot 3:3 says that women are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin. A baraita — a teaching that existed at the same time as the Mishnah but was left outside it — on Kiddushin 33b lists tefillin as one of five examples of positive time-bound mitzvot from which women are exempt. The rabbis of the Gemara then use the laying of tefillin to establish a general rule that women are exempt from all positive time-bound mitzvot (Talmud Kiddushin 34a). The question then immediately turns to how we know that women are exempt from tefillin. The answer given is that by the rule of juxtaposing biblical verses, women’s exemption from the mitzvah of tefillin (a positive time-bound mitzvah) can be learned from women’s exemption from the mitzvah of Torah study (a positive non-time-bound mitzvah from which women, as an exception from the general rule, are exempt). Finally, the Talmud teaches us that women were exempt from the mitzvah of Talmud Torah because the phrase found in Deuteronomy 11:19, “you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your banim,” intends banim to be read not as “children” but instead as “sons.”
The ramifications of these teachings are significant once we connect them to a mishnah in Masekhet Eruvin about how many pairs of tefillin can be brought in from outside the eruv on Shabbat. We learn that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah agree that tefillin must be a positive commandment without a fixed time, and that women are obligated to perform all such commandments (Eruvin 96B, Tosefta Eruvin 8:15). Additionally, another baraita recounts that Michal bat Shaul wore tefillin and the rabbis did not object. The ramifications of this argument would be significant, for if we were to conclude that the mitzvah of tefillin is not time bound or Michal bat Shaul’s precedent of wearing tefillin was halachically binding, the Gemara’s later conclusion that women would possibly not be exempt from any time-bound mitzvot would no longer be binding (see reference above to Talmud Kiddushin 34a). Fast-forward 1,800 years and the arguments for the sake of heaven today are exactly the same as they were then.
The Jewish community can be proud that it is raising knowledgeable young men and women in educational environments in which the next generation of Jewish leaders think critically about taking on the obligations and responsibilities of mitzvot. In the spirit that today’s sanctuaries serve as archetypes of the ancient Mishkan, so too should our halachic understanding reflect the tavnit, archetypes, of the past; that is, with respect to women and tefillin, we should frame our discussions as an important way of continuing our long tradition of thoughtful debate surrounding differing ideas and practices. At the same time, we should praise those who grapple honestly with existing, clear tensions within halachah — those who seriously commit themselves to mitzvot and do so with respect for God and the tradition, and who are devoted to their prayer and school communities.
The film “12 Years a Slave,” is currently nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. The film is the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and forced into slavery. The trailers alone (I haven’t yet seen the film) show the brutal nature of slavery as it was institutionalized in the American South. Northup’s captivity ends when he is able at last to prove his identity.
American slave owners, to varying degrees, relied on the Bible as justification for slavery. For example, in Genesis Chapter 16 Hagar runs away from her mistress Sarah (known at that point of the story as Sarai). An angel of God speaks to her and tells her to return to her mistress’ harsh treatment. This was interpreted by some to promote slavery and discourage slaves from running away. But Deuteronomy 23:16-17 prohibits the return of fugitive slaves: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases: you must not ill-treat him.” One commentator posits that this refers only to slaves from abroad, but the Talmud says that the rule also applied when the owner was an Israelite.
Slavery seems to be a topic addressed with some ambivalence in the Torah. On one hand, our ancestors’ formative experiencewas the redemption from slavery in Egypt. These events are commemorated, ritualized, and even re-enacted at the Passover seder. Our path to fulfillment as the Jewish people depends on our freedom.
And yet the Torah does not outlaw slavery. Instead it is meticulous about regulating it, presumably to make it unattractive to a potential slave owner. This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, in Exodus Chapter 21, presents most of the commandments the Torah has about slavery. The laws are somewhat disjointed, but they create a picture not really of slavery, but of the slave. He is a human being. He is to be given the right to leave after seven years. Had American slavery truly been biblically based, Simon Northop’s nightmare would have been five years shorter. Mishpatim and other parts of the Torah list other restrictions on slavery, doing its best to affirm that we ought to be servants only to God. The most sweeping commandment portraying slavery as a flawed institution is the jubilee year, which in Leviticus 25 proclaims release throughout the land every fifty years, and reunites families.
Slavery in this country is a thing of the past, legally at least. Recently we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, which announced a new birth of freedom for this country. But slavery has not been eradicated by any means. Some estimates indicate that there are more slaves worldwide today than at any point in history.
Here in the United States, we hear stories about men and women who are often trafficked into forced labor situations in homes or businesses. Others are forced into sexual slavery. It is difficult to help these victims because it is hard to find them; for obvious reasons their captors keep them from view. And they seek help only at great risk to themselves and sometimes to their families. Recently there has been a concerted effort to raise awareness of human trafficking. Jewish organizations such as T’ruah, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ have put a priority on addressing this crisis, as it tends to become more acute around major sporting events such as the Super Bowl. The work that they and others have done is crucial, and it can be supported by individuals of all different political and religious ideologies. (See page 7 for more information about local efforts to fight human trafficking.)
No one ought to be a slave. The Torah limited slavery as best it could, and we are blessed to live in a country that outlaws forced servitude. The challenge now is to embrace the lessons of the Exodus, understand the implications of Parashat Mishpatim, and ensure that freedom extends to everyone.
As the parsha relates to us the final step toward complete liberation, the splitting of the sea, there is a very enigmatic verse: “The Children of Israel went up chamushim from the land of Egypt.” The term chamushim is not a common Hebrew word, leading many of the classic commentators on the Torah to offer explanations of its meaning and its relevance.
Rashi explains that the word has a similar etymology as the word “chamesh,” meaning the number five. He goes on to explain that the verse is referring to the fact that only one-fifth of the Jewish population actually left Egypt; those that didn’t believe or that didn’t want to leave died during the plague of darkness.
Targum Yerushalmi, an Aramaic translation of the Torah written or compiled from the Second Temple period until the early middle ages, states that “chamushim” means armed, not with traditional weapons per se, but rather with good deeds.
A third explanation comes from Targum Yonoson ben Uziel, which says that “chamushim” means they went out with five children each.
What does it mean they went out with good deeds? Our tradition teaches us that the Jewish people were assimilated into Egyptian culture to such an extent that had God not taken them out at that moment, they would have forever been sunk into the moral depravity of Egypt. God therefore gave them the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice and circumcision in order to give them some merits through which they could warrant redemption.
What does it mean they had five children? Does Targum Yonoson ben Uziel mean to say every single family had the exact same number of children? That’s seems very unlikely, and even if true, why would it be relevant?
Rabbi Yosef Salant gave a beautiful explanation in his work “Be’er Yosef” that ties all three explanations together. While it’s true that four-fifths of the Jewish people perished in the plague of darkness, this refers only to the adults, not the children, who are obviously not punished for their parents’ beliefs. So when every Jew finally went out of Egypt, 80 percent of the children were orphans. This means that the one-fifth that exited Egypt took care of their own families and four other sets of children as well.
This explains their good deeds; they looked beyond their own immediate needs and the needs of their immediate families and with great self-sacrifice took it upon themselves to adopt and nurture four other families of children. This then is what Yonoson ben Uziel is saying: Not that they went out with five children each, but rather five sets of children.
The prophet Micah tells us that the miracles that happened in Egypt will happen again in the final redemption. The fact that the Torah relates this incredible act of selflessness and sacrifice to us just before the splitting of the sea is a message to all: The secret to bringing about the final redemption is acts of goodness, sacrificing our own comfort and needs to help others.
Open your Shabbos table to a new person, make sure that your Pesach seder this year includes someone who has never experienced a seder or perhaps has no place to go. Then you, too, can say that you are ready to leave this final exile “chamushim” — armed with good deeds and love of your fellow man.
The plagues that God brings to Egypt become increasingly more serious. At first the Nile turns to blood and then frogs infest Egypt. There are gnats, flies, livestock killing disease, boils, hail, and locusts. The Egyptians lose their farm animals and their crops. The final plague, the death of the first born, is of course the most horrifying and tragic. So why is the plague that preceded it only darkness? Maybe before the plague bringing death there should have been something more serious, perhaps some really grotesque disease?
To answer that question, let me start with a different query. How do you know when the sun rises and sets? I have a simple answer, “There’s an app for that!” In fact I have been known to take out my HTC One phone just before evening minyan at my synagogue, which always begins at 7:30 p.m. I touch the icon “Sundroid.” At certain times of the year 7:30 p.m. is before sunset, at other times it is after sunset. Can we recite the afternoon mincha service at that hour or not? Once the sun sets we cannot. Sundroid gives me the information I need. I can’t look out the window in the chapel because it is a bit complicated. The curvature of the earth bends the rays of the sun. When the sun is below the horizon, just before it rises and just after it sets, it is not totally dark. Sunrise and sunset are gradual changes that cannot be seen precisely by the eye.
In ancient times, how did the Rabbis determine when to recite the various daily prayers? The Mishnah asks, “From what time may one recite the Shema in the morning? [i.e. When is sunrise?] From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white. R. Eliezer says between blue and green…” In Talmudic times, they were able to tell when the sun rose the old-fashioned way, by looking but not by looking at the sun. They asked, how much natural light allowed you to make a visual distinction? The first opinion in the text suggests that you could take a lump of blue wool that had some white spots in it and when you could see the white spots clearly, the sun was up. To say that you can distinguish between blue and green probably means that you can see the horizon where the blue of the sky meets the green of the vegetation growing on the earth. There are other opinions in the Talmud. Some say that you must be able to distinguish between a wolf and a dog, or an ass and a wild ass, or that there must be enough light so that a person can distinguish “his friend at a distance of four cubits [six feet].”
After all of these opinions are quoted, what is the final word in Jewish law on this point, determining when the day really begins? The accepted conclusion is the last one. When you can see and recognize your fellow human being, then the day has dawned.
If we apply these thoughts to the plague of darkness, we can read the Biblical text in a different way. The Torah says of the ninth plague, “…thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another…” Why is that plague just before the plague that brought death? Darkness is the inability to see other human beings and know them as your brother and sister. Once they are removed from our common humanity, death is not far away.
Tragically we know of times when we Jews were not seen as human beings, a step that preceded genocide. There were horrible eras when people who did not have white skin were considered as less than human. There are places today where having political beliefs that challenge the government removes you from society. We are fortunate to live at a time when differences of sexual orientation are finally being accepted and are no longer reasons for ostracism or worse.
Just as I am writing these words I read the following from the Israel Hayom: “Israeli doctors perform life-saving heart surgery on 4-year-old Syrian refugee from war-torn Homs. As the boy recovers, his father says: ‘The man we thought loved us is trying to kill us and the supposed enemy saves my son’s life. I could live here.’” We might ask who is living in darkness in the Middle East and who lives in light?
A recent best seller is simply called, “Humans of New York,” a collection of photographs documenting the wide variety of people who live in that city. No matter how different they look, they are our fellow humans. I hope we never suffer from the plague of darkness, a plague not far from the plague of death. Our people know this lesson from our history. Let us pray for the day when such darkness will never again descend on the earth.