Parashat Bo

By Laurie Levy

“It’s been a long time comin’, it’s going to be a long time gone. But you know, the darkest hour, is always just before the dawn.” David Crosby (1968)

Last week’s parashah, Va’Era, leaves off right in the middle of the action where seven plagues have been visited on the Egyptians and Pharaoh’s heart is quite stiff. A teaching about why the parashah breaks here focuses on a common element of the remaining three plagues: darkness.

In the’eighth plague, when the locusts swarmed, they covered the “surface [literally ‘eye’] of all the ground, and the ground became dark.” (Ex. 10:15) Not only was the land not visible to the Egyptians, but the land itself appears to be blinded from its cover of locusts. This of course foreshadows the ninth plague which limits the sight of the Egyptians even further, with darkness so thick that it could be touched. (Ex. 10:21) And for the last plague, “in the middle of the night God struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 12:29)

What do we learn from all this darkness? We can imagine that prolonged exposure to total darkness terrifies, isolates and suffocates. All of us have experienced some form of fear in the night. How many parents have wrestled in the night with the monsters that lurk under our children’s bed or in their closet? Indeed, the tenth plague has images of all our worst nightmares: demons, blood and death. Yet, where darkness paralyzed the Egyptians in their homes for three days, “all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (10:23) These same Egyptians, who had embittered the lives of the Israelites, refusing them the freedom to worship their God, blind to their suffering and blind to the warnings of the previous eight plagues, were now enslaved themselves by not being able to see anything at all.

During the night of terror of the’tenth plague, as cries rang out from Egyptian homes over the death of their firstborns, the Israelites were commanded to prepare the paschal sacrifice and eat it in haste in anticipation of their imminent redemption. They were commanded: “None of you shall go outside of the door of your house,” indicating perhaps that they too were vulnerable targets of this final plague. However, the Israelites were protected by the blood smeared on their doorposts from the same sacrifice they were told to prepare. So where darkness signified death and destruction, especially for the Egyptians, for the Israelites it is also represented the beginning of a brighter future.

Our liturgy acknowledges this dichotomy surrounding darkness and night. We are comforted by “the Guardian of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalms 121:4) when we ask God each evening in the second blessing after the Sh’ma, Hashkiveinu, to shelter us from that which makes us feel vulnerable at night. God’s faithfulness at night holds the promise of a bright dawn. Psalms 119:105 teaches: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path.” God’s presence helps us to navigate the darkness in our lives.

In the commentary to this parashah, the Etz Hayim Humash states, “the person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, incapable of rising from where he is.” Indeed, we learn that one can say the Sh’ma in the morning only when one can see the face of one’s friend. Darkness is a plague because it is so stifling – both physically and spiritually. When we cannot see those around us, we become callous and indifferent to them. Our task is to confront the darkness in our lives and in the world and to effect positive change by being an “or l’goyim,” a light to the nations.

The world was created out of darkness, and God created light by separating it from the darkness. (Gen 1:4) We end Shabbat each week with a beautiful braided Havdalah candle to illuminate the darkness. The night ahead can either be a dreaded time of shadows and fears or the precursor of a new dawn that will begin a new day. We have the power to navigate through the darkness. May we open our eyes to the signs and wonders in our lives and find ways to shine our light through the darkness and see our way to making the world a better place.


Laurie Levy is a rabbinical student at AJR. She is currently serving as an intern at Morristown Jewish Center in Morristown, New Jersey.