By Rabbi Howard Wolk
This d’var Torah is written in memory of my wife, z”l, Annette, Chana Bayla bas Yehoshua, whose first Yahrtzeit was observed this past 6 Shevat.
Loneliness was often associated with “street people.” Cold nights experienced alone were often thought of as a modern blight of the poor, the unattached. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us that people with families may experience loneliness — if they can’t see their relatives in person. Individuals living in large, comfortable homes are experiencing the trauma of loneliness after months of isolation and abandonment.
These experiences have ancient antecedents as found in this week’s Torah portion of Bo. Exodus 10:22 states that there was “a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days.” As a result, the Egyptians were terrified; they could not move from their places.
Why such a terrible reaction to this plague? Other plagues affected their water, their crops, their animals and their very bodies. Why was this plague of darkness so terrifying?
It was because the plague of darkness was the plague of loneliness. Everyone was isolated both visually and bodily. The other plagues were suffered together. Darkness was the experience of total isolation. The Talmud teaches us: “Tsarat rabim, chatzee nechama.” If people share pain or a tragedy, the sharing in and of itself provides comfort. In the plague of darkness, the Egyptians did not have that; they were totally isolated one from another.
In contrast, “And all of the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23)
How was that possible? The Israelites lived intermingled among the Egyptians. Hence, the requirement to place blood on their doorposts before the Tenth Plague. So, how could the Israelites have light (or) and the Egyptians, darkness (choshech)?
The commentator, Torah Temimah, offers a fascinating insight. He points out that nowhere in the Torah’s description of the darkness is the sun mentioned. The plague was not a solar eclipse. Rather, Hashem caused a membrane to grow over the eyes of the Egyptians — they developed cataracts — and they could not see. The darkness they experienced was not the darkness of nighttime but the darkness of a blind person. A blind person does not see darkness; he sees nothing. That is why it was so terrifying for them; they had never experienced it before. That is why they remained alone and isolated for three days until their vision was returned.
The Israelites had light, “or.” On a spiritual level, Torah is “or.” The teaching of Torah, the inculcating of Torah values, infuses one with “or” from Hashem.
Annette permeated light with her smile, her radiance and with her teaching of Torah throughout our community. She filled our home and the lives of our children and grandchildren with “or” and spread that “or” to everyone of all ages.
May her memory always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Howard Wolk is community chaplain with Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.