Darkness As Threat & Haven
In an emotional television interview, the last person rescued alive from the World Trade Center described her panic when she saw that night had arrived while she was still trapped beneath the wreckage. Once this woman realized that the light had faded from between the slabs of concrete and metal and that it was truly dark outside, she lost hope of ever being rescued.
The terror of the night is a universal theme with which every religion and society grapples. It is no wonder that Elie Weisel’s seminal testimony to his experience at Auschwitz is entitled simply, Night. This metaphor for the horrors of the Holocaust resonates with human beings of every culture. The darkness of night signals danger, the evil under-belly of civilization, the fear of being lost, stalked, or trapped. The power of darkness is no stranger to our Torah. In this week’s parashah, the final three plagues all utilize the instrument of darkness as a force of dread and despair.
It is not surprising that the plagues culminate in darkness and night. The imagery is potent. In the eighth plague, the locusts “hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15). The darkened land symbolizes the impending doom upon all of Egypt. In the ninth plague, there was “darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that could be touched..People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was” (Exodus 10:21-23). The Egyptians are trapped by darkness, completely immobilized by their own evil. These days of paralysis also foreshadow their certain fate– the fate of a final night. The decisive demise of a wicked nation occurs at midnight. This tenth and final plague conjures up all of the dreaded fears of the night: demons, blood, death and destruction.
However, I would suggest that the Exodus story defies any simple reading of darkness and night. Aviva Zornberg writes about the paradox of the Exodus night: “For the Egyptians, darkness is chaos, blindness, death. More strangely, for the Israelites, too, it is terror, imprisonment, blood as well as redemption.” In other words, the gloom of the night is not merely experienced by the enemy. Nor is the darkness in the Exodus story wholly virulent. There is a redemptive quality to the night.
We are so transfixed by the punitive force of darkness upon the Egyptians, that we often overlook the impact of the night upon the Israelites. Like the Egyptians, the Israelites are trapped by the final plague. Moses admonishes them, “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” (Exodus 12:22). Why would the Israelites essentially be imprisoned on this night? As Rashi explains: “This tells us that after permission has been given to the Destroyer to do injury, he does not differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. And night is the domain of the destroyers.” Thus, the Israelites, while.protected by their blood-soaked doors, are still subject to the demons of the night. This fright-filled evening is intensified by the purposeful dramatization of panic in the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. It is difficult to imagine eating at all during a night in which death-seeking angels brush by your door and loud screams emit from all corners of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites are commanded to eat, and to eat in a frenzy: “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste ( b’hipazon ). It is a Passover offering to the Lord. For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt..” (Exodus 12:11-13).
This unlikely feast in the midst of terror illustrates the difference between the darkness of night for the Egyptians and the darkness of night for the Israelites. Darkness has entrapped them both. However, in one house the darkness spells death and destruction, while in the other it spells the dream of a new future. The Israelites are poised on the verge of a journey. While darkness is a grave for Egypt, it also serves as the birthplace of a liberated people. “There is an angel in charge of conception, and his name is Night” ( Niddah 16b). This night, pregnant with the promise of salvation, is described by the Torah as leyl shimurim , “a night of watching” (Exodus 12:42). As Ibn Ezra explains, God “watched over the Israelites and did not allow the destroyer to come into their homes.” God holds a vigil for the Israelites during this night of terror and panic. The night is, thus, redeemed. To this day, the traditional Jewish bedtime liturgy includes the comforting image of God’s constant vigil: “Behold the One Who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121: 4). Each night that holds the fear of darkness also holds the hope of God’s loving shelter. In our story of liberation, there is still a fearful night. We cannot escape darkness in this world; however, the events of the Exodus story teach us that the night can be transformed into fertile ground for new beginnings. God’s faithful guardianship at night holds the dream of a dawn.
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Berkun’s commentary on Parashat Bo has been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.