Out of the Darkness, into the Light

Bo By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 3, 2014 / 5774

As Parashat Bo opens, the intransigence of Pharaoh increases as well as the determination of God, Moses, and Aaron. Pharaoh’s heart ossifies, and God brings the wrath of the final plagues upon the Egyptians. And although it is the death of the firstborn that brings Pharaoh to the cathartic release of the Israelites, the penultimate plague of darkness is a profound turning point as the Israelites near their freedom. The moment reminds one of the creation of the world, when God initially separates light from darkness. How fitting it is that this symbol comes into play as the Israelite nation is born. A tangible darkness blankets the Egyptians in chaos as the Israelites “enjoy light in their dwellings” (Exod. 10:23). Ostensibly, since the Egyptians cast the Israelites into the darkness of enslavement, Pharaoh and his countrymen now become the victims of their own ruse. They are now enslaved to and imprisoned by darkness. How may we understand Israelite illumination in the midst of Egyptian darkness?

Professor Ze’ev Falk sheds his on light on this plague as he explains,

The motif of light, that shone upon Israel during the plague of darkness, symbolizes the righteousness of Israel juxtaposed to the evil of Egypt . . . This same theme repeats itself in connection to the righteousness of Israel at the end of days and the redemption of humanity: “I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6), and in connection to the joy of the city of Shushan on the salvation of the Jews, “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16). This imagery is also employed in the description of the king of Israel sitting amidst his people when King David compares a righteous ruler’s fear of God to light: “He who rules men justly, He who rules in awe of God is like the light of the morning at sunrise” (II Samuel 23:3–4). (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 137)

The light of the Israelites, Falk explains, reflects the righteousness of their cause; darkness is a condemnation of Egypt. Yet Falk also connects the moment of Israelite redemption to other redemptive points—light appears in the Jewish redemption of Purim and at the end of days. Most importantly, though, Falk cites King David’s teaching on a just ruler: namely that one who rules in awe or fear of God “is like the light of the morning at sunrise.” In Egypt, the light of the Israelites shines brightly because of the injustices of the Egyptians; once the Israelites leave, God challenges them to become a different kind of light. The Israelites must create their own illuminative powers—not in relation or in comparison to darkness. Their own light must come from ruling justly and with a sense of the awe of God. Such is the only path toward eschewing darkness and creating a world in which God’s salvation may indeed “reach the ends of the earth.”


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