Parshat Bo 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Bo 5778

Shabbat Shalom.

Perhaps there are no sections in the Torah that I could speak to you about where you have more background knowledge than the sections we are currently reading.

You come to this teaching prepared! You’ve done your reading! Why? Because most if not all of you sit at Seders on Passover. And there we tell this story that originates in this Torah reading.

It’s the story of our first exile to slavery. It’s the story of plagues. And it’s the story of our redemption.

And each and every part of that story has remained a part of our story. It in many ways defines us and defines our most important values.

And the story as written in the Torah has grown through the ages. What is part of the basic text — the narrative of Exodus — has grown through the rabbinic tradition with interpretation, values and Jewish history added. More than that, it has become a part of the story of many native tribes and oppressed people throughout time.

This coming week we have an outstanding Jewish artist coming to our community. His name is David Moss. David lives in Jerusalem and has devoted his life to art and education. Among his works, as I have told you, is a Haggadah built on the extraordinary work he has done with illuminated manuscripts. He created a Haggadah that is deep in meaning, incredible in its texture and whose art tells in obvious and symbolic ways the story we know.

By the way, the original work was commissioned by a member, Richard Levy, and is held by his family to this day. It is valued at approximately one million dollars. He will be here this week at our Lunch and Learn on Tuesday, speaking about the Haggadah in general and the Haggadah he created will also be here. Check your Shabbat Shalom bulletin for the details. On Wednesday evening he will be showing and lecturing about illuminated manuscripts. This isn’t to be missed.

I’ve mentioned this, not only to bring your attention to an opportunity but because I want to quote and paraphrase something that Moss wrote in his introduction to Haggadah.

It is in relation to the plagues. The plagues create ambivalence for us. We have trouble believing in the science, the historicity or reality. We push back at the suffering that God brought because it was not only to Pharaoh but to an entire people — including innocents. We want to make them metaphors for cosmic battles and we think of them in some cartoonish if not outright silly ways. I say this last part because of presentations I have been told about and seen in Judaic shops! From tee shirts to rubber frogs being tossed across tables!

But, here’s what Moss wrote:

Once I wanted to write a book. My book was to be about how native peoples throughout the world have identified themselves with the Israelites. Whether because of the myth of the Lost Tribes or simply through identification with a model of the oppressed, it seems native peoples and others who are oppressed, from places as wide apart as New Zealand and South Africa and groups as diverse as American Blacks and Native Americans, have seen themselves as Jews, their oppressors Egyptians, and the leader they hope will redeem them as the new Moses. (Think about that: Martin Luther King was never seen as a later day Jesus but depicted as a modern Moses!)

For the oppressed, Jew or Gentile, the plagues and the Exodus forever remain the definitive statement that the ultimate power is God’s alone — that any usurper of that power, any man who claims absolute authority over his fellows, ultimately has a true Absolute Power to reckon with.

Moss goes on to say that his book about oppressed people was never written, but the message remains for him and all the world’s oppressed. It was and is a radical message. And in it he finds comfort and hope. He said the plagues contain a deep source for endurance and a strong impetus for change. As such, he claims the horror of the plagues can be turned into, what he calls, “an awful beauty.” An “awful beauty” he claims, maybe because their destructions set the world right.

Let me explain regarding one plague, the darkness that we read about this morning… Choshech.

Darkness can be a great teacher. Remember Simon and Garfunkel? “Hello, darkness, my old friend?” In it, they expressed the opportunity to have a vision. In darkness, we can lose sight of the things that distract and we can listen easier to the yearnings of our soul.

But, darkness can also evoke fear and uncertainty. In darkness, we can get lost. In darkness, we can lose our bearings and our capacity to be productive. Most importantly, in darkness, we can lose sight of each other.

The ninth plague — the plague of darkness. The text reads like this: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the Land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.'” And, it goes on to say, describing the plague even more, “People couldn’t see one another… No one could get up from where they were, but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings!”

What’s that say? The Israelites could see one another. And as I think about this plague, I realize that it could not be describing a natural event like a total eclipse. No, this was supernatural and this was brought by God.

And in it there is something so profound for us to learn. The darkness emphasized a society where people couldn’t see each other. The antidote was in the capacity to see one another.

A hallmark of a tyranny is the inability to see the pain or the suffering of those opposed or simply the common man. Enslavement is about worshipping someone or something or things, and through that allegiance, the sight of the suffering of others is blinded by darkness.

And that is why these plagues are so central to our story. It is in this paradigm that we can find the God of the slaves. This God opened the eyes of the people to see each other. And so the hungry were cared for, those in pain were comforted, the oppressed were looking towards freedom with their brothers and sisters.

And this is why the plagues are manifestations of God. For God is found in the capacity to see the other. Darkness and light are not only a physical experience but an existential way of living.

The Talmud opens with a section, Moshechet Brachot. And its early concerns are the appropriate times to say prayers, to say blessings. So our morning prayers begin at dawn. When is that exactly? The rabbis say, “When you can see the face of another.” Darkness lifts when one sees another human being. In our prayers, we need to see each other.

Darkness is also a metaphor for despair. Chronic despair could be described clinically as depression. One of the sad hallmarks of a depressed person is that they can only think of themselves and their situation and their own pain.

The great psychiatrist of the mid-fifties and sixties, Carl Menninger, was known to have said when he met depressed patients — as he began clinical work and before medications — if you want to feel better, go out and see who you can help. It’s not always that easy, but we understand the intention.

So if God is in these plagues God’s presence is seen amongst the people with light in their dwellings. If called upon, God can be found among the suffering. And then God hears the prayers of those in need and feels the pain of the oppressed.

The message is clear, when we hear the calls of those who suffer, when we visit the sick, or a family that mourns, we bring something Divine. And it is in our nature. And we are capable of accessing that. When we fight for the rights of those left out, those without, we bring something Divine. We bring light to dark places.

At the end of the day, I believe this is where the potential beauty of our Jewish lives resides… in creating communities where people truly see each other. To do that takes a willingness to show our own vulnerability. And to do that takes a willingness to go beyond superficiality… to truly listen and to really see.

Do you recall the words of Jacob after his dream when he believed he was seen by God: Achein Yeich Adonoi BaMakom Hazeh… V’Anochi… lo Yadat!

“God is in this place, and I didn’t know!”

Shine a little light and we all can see. Shine a little light, knowledge, understanding, empathy and we can make the ordinary, holy… and bring God to this place and the places around us.

So up until now, the plagues had to terrify, not just the Egyptians, but the Hebrew slaves also. But now something changes. And they see God, not just as a natural or supernatural force, but a force within them. They see each other are now ready to be redeemed.

The final plague comes and the Hebrew slaves have to be willing to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on the door. That lamb was a symbol that Pharaoh — worshipped with the lamb — is not God. Human power is not to be worshipped. Human beings manifest God’s presence in kindness and compassion, in graciousness and patience and in truth.

That’s what we can take away from this story. As Moses wrote it, this story is a deep source to inspire endurance and a strong impetus for change. These turn the horror of plagues into an awful beauty.

Together, as our story unfolds from Egyptian slavery to this very day, we will learn more and more about our past, our people, our God and hopefully be inspired to become more.

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom.