A darkness that can be touched


By Rabbi Laurie Green
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1–13:16.

The Kotzker Rebbe noted that there is something worse than slavery: “They were willing
to bear the Egyptian yoke,” he said of the Hebrews. “And it was from their ‘bearings’ that they first had to be delivered.”

There are slaves who yearn to be free, and there are slaves who become accustomed to slavery. They can’t imagine another way of life, and if they could, they could never find the courage to seize it.


We, too, can become too comfortable with our lives as they are. Victims of spousal abuse return to their dangerous partners. Addicts are unable to see another way. Trauma survivors with PTSD mentally relive their experience years after it ended. That’s Egypt.

This week, we read: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.”

Veyameish choshekh, literally “a darkness that can be touched.” Midrash Rabbah declares: “There was substance to it.” Midrash Tanchuma states, “This darkness was doubled and redoubled. If an Egyptian was standing, he was unable to sit; if sitting, he was unable to stand.”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander calls this “the darkness of inertia: They were unable even to help themselves.” Like the Egyptians who “if they were lying down, they could not get up,” those of us experiencing major depression also lack the energy to move or the desire to engage with the world.

There is a mental health crisis in America, and the Jewish community is not immune. Many of us have become trapped in our own darkness. Stigma and secrecy only thicken the darkness.

The Gerer Rebbe understood that darkness was so debilitating because people couldn’t see each other’s pain, and they couldn’t see each other’s faces. For a human being, not being seen is a recipe for despair and despondency. How could a person suffering so deeply not experience panic attacks or suicidal thoughts, or turn to sex or pain killers or an eating disorder to avoid facing their truth?

Though some of us suffer more than others, we all, at some point in our lives, feel stuck in our narrow place, as the word for Egypt means in Hebrew. It is as if we can touch the darkness. In the concluding words of “Exodus and Revolution,” by scholar Michael Walzer: “We still believe, or many of us do… First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

Rabbi Laurie Green is spiritual leader and education director of Kehila Chadasha in Montgomery County.

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