Rabbi Davis often uses song to mark the beginning and end of a discussion and I found myself wondering if the ability to carry a tune is a rabbinical requirement. Fortunately I don't aspire to such. Having sung of light in a happy context, we then turned our attention to its opposite, darkness, specifically the plague of darkness visited upon the Egyptians as a prelude to the release of the Israelites (Exodus. 10:21).
What does the plague of darkness represent to us? we were asked. "Fear, the unknown, hopelessness, a violation of the laws of nature (darkness during day) " we responded. This evolved into a discussion of our experiences with darkness, some which were quite unusual. One of our group recalled eating at a restaurant in Israel at which the wait staff was blind and the meal was served in darkness. A light code of sorts was enforced with a guest asked to remove his glow in the dark watch.
We discussed how darkness makes one appreciate its antithesis. But darkness is not always a negative. When one is in the womb, we float in darkness. It is light that shocks us upon the moment of birth. And in a world without artificial light, the phases of the moon were especially important for a full moon allowed one to see.
Coming back to the plague of darkness we were asked to imagine the response of the Egyptians when the power of their sun god was extinguished by darkness. The rabbi shared the relevant passages from the Torah together with excerpts of medieval commentary.
The interpretations sometimes grew out of disparate translations of words. Rashi argued that the verb in a key passage came from the word meaning "to grope" as in "you shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark (Deuteronomy 28:29)" arguing for a thick darkness, one of mass. Still other interpretations spoke of the darkness as a blinding light.
Interestingly the Israelites were noted as having light in their dwelling, even as the Egyptians did not. We considered whether the term dwelling meant a home or perhaps our body, the home of our inner light.
In addition to the Egyptians, the plague of darkness also affected those Israelites who did not want to venture out of Egypt for forty years of wandering. According to the Midrash, twelve million Israelites died in the darkness.
So what are we to learn of darkness? Hiddushei haRim notes that the greatest darkness is when we fail to see another person, a failure to empathize. Yet another interpreter Even Haezel references language that states the darkness was as thick as dinars (gold coins) meaning that chasing wealth "increases selfishness and darkens the eyes".
*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 25 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.