By Rabbi Peter Rigler
These winter months can be difficult for many of us. Even those of us who don’t suffer from seasonal depression feel it.
The daylight hours are short and, when darkness enters, we notice it in our core. We hide in our homes: I joke that I don’t see my neighbors for months. When the spring hits and the sun is out, we feel more alive, more energetic and like ourselves. Our neighborhood seems to come back to life. The lack of light can haunt us and bring us into a feeling of even greater darkness.
This week, Parshat Bo is covered in darkness.
The final three of the 10 plagues are contained in this week’s Torah portion, and they encompass a darkening world. After seven difficult plagues, we seem to come to a new level. As we progress, they convey a sense of imminent destruction for the Egyptians.
At the start of Parshat Bo, Egypt suffers from an infestation of locusts, which come in a dark cloud as they destroy the crops; later on, the devastating 10th plague brings the Angel of Death, sweeping through Egypt in the black of night. Between these two plagues is one of darkness itself.
What is this darkness that is described in the ninth plague? The text itself is brief and just contains two verses: “And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days; they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:22-23)
Fear, dread and horror must have filled those who witnessed it. When we have seen snow squalls and passing storms and are in our homes looking out the window, it feels so scary and threatening.
Never wanting to miss an opportunity, the Midrash here suggests that what is described is a physical darkness and that “in their dwellings” refers not to the Israelite’s own dwellings in Goshen but to the dwellings of the Egyptians. The darkness is on the others’ homes and not on ours.
Other sources, however, teach that the darkness went well beyond the physical. This was a spiritual plague, causing darkness of the soul. The Chasidic commentator Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur commented that, “There is no greater darkness than one in which man could not see his fellow man,” in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man.
When that happens, a person becomes stymied in his personal development as well — nor could anyone rise from his place. In the Talmud we learn that daylight can be declared when we can see the face of our neighbor at a distance and know who it is. In other words, in light we find connection and security.
I understand “the light they brought in with them” in a different context. The clouds in our own lives can make it nearly impossible to lift ourselves up. And yet I have seen in my own life and through my pastoral work that darkness can actually be an invitation to experience God. We are taught in our tradition to be like one who “would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” seeing even in darkness — physical, spiritual and emotional flickers — an opportunity to illuminate. If there is darkness around us, then we ignite a spark and pray for glimmers and rays of hope.
Many years ago, I read about Tromsø, Norway, where the Polar Night lasts all winter. Yet despite the darkness, rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low.
Located more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle during the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Despite the city’s extreme darkness, past research has shown that residents actually have lower rates of wintertime depression than areas like our own.
Well, researchers found a wintertime mindset and a positive outlook changed a great deal. In Tromsø, the Polar Night is translated not as a dark time but as the “blue time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. They approach the night with more gatherings and more candles filling cafes and homes. They add more town celebrations and festivals.
More activities and more joy fill the air. They don’t hunker down and hibernate — they embrace it. Just when the darkness is about to overtake them and send them into hiding, they find a way not just to rise above it but to use it as a way to gather and fill their hearts with light.
We know it is not always that easy. Finding light in darkness is challenging but possible. If you are hiding in darkness, go in search of light and connection.
May this Shabbat offer for you sparks of the divine to lighten your homes and hearts.
Rabbi Peter Rigler is the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Broomall. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.