Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Narrative of the Night (Portion Bo)

This week’s portion, Bo, takes us into the heart of darkness. It opens with the eighth plague—swarms of locusts that darkened the land. Then Egypt is engulfed in a “thick darkness” so palpable that it renders the Egyptians incapable of movement for three days. All of this dark terror builds up to the final plague when, at the stroke of midnight, God strikes down the firstborn in every Egyptian household. At last, as all of Egypt wails in the darkness, Pharaoh “summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!’”

The darkness of Bo is inseparable from devastation and death. It is, therefore, a source of intense trepidation, not only for the Egyptians, but also for our Israelite ancestors—and for us. When, on the journeys of our lives, we find ourselves cast into dim places, we tend to reach desperately for light. The descent of darkness shatters our illusions of control and reminds us of our own mortality.

Yet Parashat Bo reminds us that darkness is also the incubator of hope, the place where redemption is born. In Egypt, the Jewish people become a nation. We are conceived in the darkness of bondage and delivered in the middle of God’s eternal night of vigil. This ancient poem from the Passover Haggadah recounts our story of miracles fashioned amidst the darkness: Unto God let praise be brought / For the wonders God has wrought / At the solemn hour of midnight.

It is natural to fear the dark. Nightfall is frightening. Still, if we, like our forebears, wish to grow from our experiences, we must learn to embrace the liberating power of darkness. In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd urges us to think of the divine dark that descends upon us all as a womb rather than a tomb. She asks: "Could it be that seeking real light comes only by dwelling for a time in the dark? How sad when we don’t incubate the new life pressing to birth inside us. How sad when we cut it short, forcing unformed answers and refusing to hold the tensions of pain. Everything incubates in darkness. Whenever new life grows, darkness is crucial to the process. . . . So why have we made God into a rescuer rather than a midwife?"

Parashat Bo challenges us to imagine God as a midwife, to embrace our night vision. The poet Theodore Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” In their Egyptian midnight, our terrified ancestors caught their first glimpse of freedom. In our own midnights, we, too, begin to see—but only if we find the faith to hold our ground despite our fear, to wait patiently in the shadows rather than running prematurely for the light.

The Aramaic term for blindness is sagi nahor—literally, “too much light.” Thus does the sacred language of our Talmud reveal a fundamental truth: in order to grow, we need the darkness no less than the daylight. And our tradition has always recognized that just as our Jewish months begin on the darkest nights, under the new moon, so too can our Jewish souls find sustenance in the shadows—if only we can muster the courage to tarry there.
Three months after the Exodus described in Parashat Bo, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. There, too, they encounter thick darkness, in the form of the “dense cloud” that falls upon the mountain. Torah tells us that this is precisely where God is to be found. Moses bravely enters that divine darkness, twice. He returns bearing the tablets inscribed with God’s black fire.
Out of the darkness—through the darkness—comes both liberation and law. Without the night and all of its terrors, there can be no Torah. This is the legacy of Parashat Bo.

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