For ALEPH Student Shabbaton – January 8, 2022
Joshua Jeffreys (he/him/his) is a third-year rabbinical student in the ALEPH Ordination Program, and part of the Earth-Based Judaism Cohort. Josh serves on the ALEPH Student Board (ASB) as Secretary, and offered the following d’var on Parshat Bo during the virtual student Shabbaton preceding OHALAH 2022 Conference.
Good shabbos. Let’s start with the obvious and some honesty: Reading about the plagues hits differently in a pandemic, and – if countless discussions and social media posts are accurate indicators – it seems worse in some ways this year after a brief reprieve for many late last summer and a now distant hope we’d be davening together in person by this morning. Even attempting to name all the crises in our world feels overwhelming, and those are just the societal ones! Let us not ignore the Egypts we are all experiencing in our own lives, the pain and heartache we hold in our community, nor the physical toll such psycho-spiritual turmoil is likely taking on our bodies. So if you’d like or would feel more comfortable, please take some time to close your eyes, take a breath, ground yourself, and honor what your body needs in this moment.
As we contemplate God’s wonders during our collective going out from Egypt in Parshat Bo, it feels no less miraculous to gather here in our holy kehillah. Even acknowledging the disappointment we may feel to be separated once more by screens, we may not be able to feel the physical touch of our beloveds, but there is something almost tangible about the loving embrace I sense in this sacred space when I close my eyes and listen or look around at the radiant faces on my screen. And while the plagues as a whole seem an appropriate metaphor for the past several years (as the countless Passover articles can attest), the final three we read about this week – locusts, darkness, the death of the first born – truly feel like they were written for this exact time.
I don’t know whether it’s the former preschool teacher in me, one-too-many seders at the kids table, or simply the way my brain works, but when I used to think of locusts, I always pictured just a few scattered about like the toy replicas in a highly commercialized Bag o’ Plagues. In my mind they sort of look like grasshoppers, more brown, bigger, but the image was always on the handful of individual insects – one on a tree over there, one on a leaf over there – kind of like cicadas, which – while kind of annoying – don’t do much more than make noise once a year. Until now it’s been harder to understand the terrifying sensation that came with the slow build up to an invasion so large that a thick mass of an all-consuming swarm could darken the land. To spend all night listening to the “רֽוּחַ־קָדִים֙,” the East wind, as it howled and brought forth a swarm to engulf the senses, hearing with increasing clarity how monstrous the forthcoming disaster would be. Perhaps even feeling the growing rumbling in the air itself as the Egyptians began to understand the calamity that would follow.
When the enormity of the locusts’ psychological harm and physical destruction is put in such stark terms, it seems obvious why darkness descends afterward. Torah says, וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ, the darkness could be felt, and the “[p]eople could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where [they were].” As I reflect on my own emotional distress during the course of the last few years, and the pain of continued exile in a broken world, it makes sense. The overpowering grief for what has been done and not yet repaired. How could the Egyptians possibly move amidst such darkness, finally beginning to see the dire consequences of their collective actions, of the way others experienced the unjust society they dwelled within, of their own suffering amidst such isolation? To be sure Pharaoh held more power than they did, but the Egyptians bore witness as the strangers in their midst were treated as less than. Wrestling with the gravity of this sudden realization, its miraculous that they move again at all, let alone after three days.
That said, sometimes the darkness can be revealing. Our own Rabbi Fern Feldman, in an article titled To Dwell in the Thick Darkness: The Sacred Dark in Jewish Thought, offers the following:
“Some say they want to “embrace the dark” when they mean embrace the grief, anger, and suffering in the world and be present with it rather than denying, ignoring, or hating it. But that is not the aspect of sacred dark that interests me most. What interests me is how in darkness all separation dissolves into oneness. Darkness is depths, cave, womb, soil that sprouts seeds, soothing shade, nighttime during which we dream, grow, and make long-term memory. Darkness can be a source, essence, innermost being, transcendence, embodiment, nothingness, emptiness, mystery.”
To be clear, I am not telling us to love our experience nor to see suffering as inherently ennobling. Though, with Rabbi Fern’s words in mind, it seems as though the 8th and 9th plagues are the turning point in our liberation narrative, where an innermost truth is discovered, and an awareness of the Oneness deep within us all can give rise to the hope of our collective redemption to follow.
You may be thinking, but wait, Josh, you forgot one… I didn’t forget nor am I skipping Makat bechorot. How could one forget the slaying of the first born? And yet, it is in the moment of choshech that the God Wrestlers find light. Those who seek the mysterious Holiness continually becoming amidst the darkness that descends and permeates the world are enlightened. It is then, from that transcendent space, that God begins preparing Yisrael for their Exodus.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא
The Holy One lets Moses know that one final plague is coming, but – before even revealing the nature of that plague – the hearts of the Egyptians already begin to look favorably upon the people. Despite glimpses of compassion and respite, the Israelites know a new world is on the brink of being born around them, so they brace themselves for “a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.” I shudder to imagine that mass wailing, the cries of a world in which every home experience loss and every loss is bemoaned. All the more so now with a toddler of my own, I can barely fathom the fortitude the Israelites possessed to continue their preparations, readying to partake in their own way by sacrificing lambs.
It is while they find themselves in this in between space that something… fascinating happens. Before the lambs are slaughtered and the doors painted – prior to the final plague, ahead of their departure from Egypt, well in advance of their crossing the sea or entering into a Promised Land – God instructs the Israelites that this is to be a sacred occasion for all time. Even before Moses tells the elders to “go and get lambs,” God provides an eternal ritual so that even in times of debilitating dark and heavy hearts, we always remember there is a hope of redemption.
When a single locust appears, it might be easy for some to dismiss it with lip service or “thoughts and prayers.” It was just a joke, it’s only one storm, it’s just one fire, it’s too soon, it was one “bad apple,” it was merely a demonstration of concerned citizens, it’s just like the flu, it’s one family, it’s just an olive tree, it’s only… God knows that a lone locust is all too easily dismissed as an anomaly rather than an outpost of injustice, a sign of things to come in the absence of a societal tikkun. And so, before fully free from bondage, we are given another reminder and a guide to ensure cycles of injustice are finally broken:
תּוֹרָ֣ה אַחַ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה לָֽאֶזְרָ֑ח וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”
The darkness is the space where redemption is conceived, but deliverance isn’t achieved until that spark of holy hope is made manifest by a mixed multitude in a world of Justice.
Next week in Ex. 14:21, Moses will lift his hands, and when the sea slowly splits after much anticipation, the Divine will have done so with the same wind – בְּר֨וּחַ קָדִ֤ים – that brought us the locusts in the first place. I know kadim is often translated as easterly or “East wind” as I did above, but it’s relation to Kedem is hard to ignore. C’Kedem – the wind contains both primordial past and promised future. The ruach, the wind, the spirit, that has brought us to this moment will see us out of it.
Many of you may know the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov expression, that “[t]he Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.” Well in this moment when we have a rare and narrowing chance at collective liberation and – God-willing – a true tikkun, I find greater meaning in the torah Devorah Tucker-Fick shared with me earlier this week: “Not every generation gets to witness a miracle, but we have to have faith that it’s coming.”
As we prepare to turn to the Aleinu, accepting that it is on us to not just praise the Holy One, but to live in a manner that uplifts the Holiness of all creation, I have faith that our Exodus is coming. I believe because of the faces in this room. I am inspired by new peers and old friends, our soon-to-be ordinees, and our wise teachers, loved ones all. This community – even in darkness, or perhaps because of it – fills me with hope that our Exodus is already becoming, that we are that miracle, and that – even through hardness and set back – we will help nurture a just world in to being speedily and in our days. May it be OUR will and may it be God’s will.