Last summer, I participated in an extraordinary workshop called Na-Laga’at. It literally means – “please touch.”
We were led into a room which was pitch dark – so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face. We found our way to our seats with our hands on the shoulders of the person ahead of us. It was only the voices across and next to us that told us with whom we sat, and only their touch that revealed their presence.
In the darkness, we were tasked to collaborate on project made from clay. The only way to complete the project was to listen carefully, to explore our imaginations, and to summon the patience and perseverance to work together.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, describes the last of the Ten Plagues the Holy One sent to wrest the Israelites free from Egyptian slavery. For the second-to-last plague, God plunges Egypt into thick darkness.
“Then YHVH 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.’ Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)”
Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, reflected on this verse by teaching that “People have eyes, yet they do not see … they are too busy justifying their own ways, whether good or ill. … This is the great darkness in all the Land of Egypt.”
Darkness seems to render us alone. Blinded, we see nothing and no one. And without the awareness of the presence of others, we may choose to focus solely on ourselves.
This is what the darkness taught the Egyptians – That if they focus only on themselves, and refuse to see each other, then in that darkness they will become paralyzed – they will never get up and move from where they are.
The Zhitomir Rebbe explained that because they could not “see” they didn’t consider anyone but themselves … they didn’t take to heart how much they could learn from the goodness of the people around them. … They kept finding fault and lack in others, glorifying their own deeds. This led them to walk about in darkness and to see no light. People like that cannot progress from one rung to the next; no person could rise from where he was.”
In this horrible week, our nation continues to drown in darkness. Our leaders refuse to see. They insist that theirs is the only path. They refuse to collaborate or compromise. And their stubborn arrogance is visiting unwarranted and unnecessary hardship on the most vulnerable in our country.
And yet this week, I also found some rays of light in the midst of the darkness. We began our Civil Discourse Issues Series, learning the techniques to break down the barriers that keep us from truly knowing each other and how we can enter into safe and productive dialogue with those with whom we do not see eye to eye.
Temple Beth El and Boca Raton Synagogue, along with several community partners welcomed a platoon of Israeli soldiers who experienced untold trauma in the midst of their service to the State of Israel and the IDF. In the embrace of our community, they will engage in intensive group therapy, and enjoy some welcome pampering and fun with our host families. They seek to banish the darkness of their service, and learn to truly see each other and themselves.
Each of these initiatives teaches us an extraordinary truth. We have the power to banish darkness from our world. If we are willing to listen to each other with humility and respect, if we are willing to reach out and touch each other irrespective of our difference, if we are willing to collaborate even though we differ, we can move beyond the darkness into a radiant and holy light.
The Zhitomir Rebbe teaches us that we liberate ourselves from darkness by always striving to learn from each other.
We become enlightened when we embrace the light of truth shining from within the Other.
We only move forward when, even in the midst of the deepest darkness, we grasp the hands of those around us, and find our way together.