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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Bo: How to Smell Your Way in the Dark

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

The plague of darkness, like the other plagues, befell the Egyptians, but not the Jews.

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 10:23).

The obvious thing for the Egyptians to do, therefore, would be to find their way -- grappling through the darkness -- to the nearest Jewish home; and thereby benefit from the light. But, in the Midrashic imagination, things were not so simple. It wasn't that there were pockets of light in the Jewish parts of Egypt, and darkness everywhere else.

Rather, the entirety of Egypt was blighted with a darkness that somehow didn't affect the Jews (or, at least, it didn't affect all of them -- the Midrash teaches that, during this plague, God took the opportunity to punish a large number of Jews, for their own sins, without the Egyptians seeing).

The Midrash declares:

Within the limits of nature, when a person lights a candle in his palace, can he say that his beloved should benefit from the light, but that his enemies shouldn't? Rather, everybody will benefit from the light. But the Holy one, blessed be He, is not [bound by] this [restriction]. Rather, [He is] "the light of Israel" (Isaiah 10:17). My children will see [by my light], but my enemies will not see. And this already occurred in Egypt (Exodus 10:23): "People could not see one another... but all of the Israelites enjoyed light..."

Did God light a candle, as this Midrash suggests, or did he send a plague of darkness? Or, perhaps the plague of darkness was, in reality, nothing more than a strange species of light; a light that strikes some people as darkness.

Another Midrash records a debate about the nature of the darkness that fell upon Egypt:

From where did this darkness come? [The matter was subject to a disagreement between] Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemia. Rabbi Yehudah said, it came from the heavenly darkness - as it is written (Psalms 18:12): "He made darkness His hiding-place, His pavilion round about Him". Rabbi Nechemia said that it was from the darkness of hell - as it is written (Job 10:22) "A land of thick darkness, as darkness itself; a land of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness."
The Malbim

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser) explains Rabbi Yehuda's position as follows. God lives in heavenly darkness. But all this really means is that the light of heaven is so bright -- it is, in fact, a blinding light -- that for us, it seems like darkness; just as "the light of the sun is like darkness for the bat". But what God did, in order to create the plague of darkness, is to give the Jewish people the temporary ability to withstand the blinding light of heaven, which he shone down onto Egypt, leaving the slave owners blind, and the slaves basking in the light.

According to Rabbi Nechemia, on the other hand, the darkness was simply darkness. And thus, according to Rabbi Nechemia -- at least as the Malbim understands him -- the light that the Jews enjoyed really was restricted to their homes, and had some Egyptians managed to stumble into the home of a Jew, they would have enjoyed it too.

But perhaps the darkness of heaven and the darkness of hell are actually the same thing. It is heaven for those who can see in it. And it is hell for those who are blinded by it. The real question is how mere mortals could have survived exposure to that light. After all, Moses himself was only allowed to see the afterglow of God's presence, for no person can see God's face and live (Exodus 33:19-23).

The great Christian theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, formulated a beautiful meditation on this theme:

Truly I do not see [your] light since it is too much for me; and yet whatever I see I see through it, just as an eye that is weak sees what it sees by the light of the sun which it cannot look at in the sun itself. My understanding is not able [to attain] to that [light]. It shines too much and [my understanding] does not grasp it nor does the eye of my soul allow itself to be turned towards it for too long. It is dazzled by its splendour, overcome by its fullness, overwhelmed by its immensity, confused by its extent. O supreme and inaccessible light; O whole and blessed truth, how far You are from me whom am so close to You! How distant You are from my sight while I am so present to Your sight! You are wholly present everywhere and I do not see You. In You I move and in You I have my being and I cannot come near to You. You are within me and around me and I do not have any experience of You.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote:

Rabbi Soloveitchik
On the one hand [the person of faith] beholds God in every nook and corner of creation, in the flowering of the plant, in the rushing of the tide, and in the movement of his own muscle, as if God were at hand close to and beside man, engaging him in a friendly dialogue. And yet the very moment man turns his face to God, he finds Him remote, unapproachable, enveloped in transcendence and mystery... When man who just beheld God's presence turns around to address himself to the Master of creation in the intimate accents of the "Thou," he finds the Master and Creator gone, enveloped in the cloud of mystery, winking to him from the awesome "beyond."

God shrouds everything in light, and yet, as soon as we reach out to Him, we find Him shrouded in darkness. The miracle of the plague of darkness, according to the Midrashic understanding, was that, while it lasted, God granted the children of Israel the ability to look directly into His own light, and still too see. But again, if that wasn't possible for Moses on Mount Sinai, how could it have been possible for the rank and file of Israel?

Time for another Midrash, regarding a different element of this week's Parsha, namely: the requirement that men who eat the Passover offering should be circumcised first:

The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to redeem [the Jewish people] but they had no merits [in virtue of which they could be redeemed]. What did the Holy one, Blessed be He, do? He called to Moses, and said to him, "Go and circumcise them".

The idea seems to be that if only they would perform this single commandment, then they'd have one merit to their name, in virtue of which God could redeem them. But the Midrash continues.

And many of them would not accept circumcision upon themselves. [Consequently] the Holy One, blessed be He, said that they should make the Passover offering, and as soon as Moses made the Passover offering, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded the four winds of the world, and blew them through the Garden of Eden, and from the winds of the Garden of Eden, they went and clung to the Passover offering... and its fragrance spread over a radius of a forty-day walk. All of Israel gathered upon Moses and said to him, "Please let us eat from your Passover offering," for they were exhausted from the smell. [But Moses] said, "If you're not circumcised, you're not eating, since it is written (Exodus 12:43-48), "The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering... [But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.]" Immediately, they gave themselves over for circumcision, and the blood of the Passover offering mixed up with the blood of the circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed by He passed over, and gave each and every person a kiss, and a blessing, as it is said (Ezekiel 16:6) "And when I passed by you, and saw you wallowing in your bloods, I said unto you: In your bloods, live; I said unto you: In your bloods, live."

There's so much to say about this Midrash that it's hard to know where to begin. Its starting point, perhaps, is the verse with which it ends. The strange thing about that verse is it talks about our living in virtue of our "bloods", in the plural. The suggestion of the Midrash is that God is, indeed, referring to two types of blood: the blood of circumcision and the blood of the Passover offering.

But why is God so happy? According to this Midrash, the Jewish people were bereft of any merit, and when given one commandment to perform, they refused. They only relented when God orchestrated a lamb barbecue with a supernatural fragrance that almost hypnotized the masses into exhausted submission.

My understanding of this Midrash is as follows. These people are worthy of God's kiss; worthy of his blessing; and worthy of redemption; because in the midst of the darkness of exile, they are able to smell the scent of the Garden of Eden. That is no easy task. The Jewish people have been through unparalleled national calamities. And yet, we never give up hope. And indeed, there are two commandments observed by almost every Jewish family: the Passover Seder, and circumcision.

Why? I know why I go to the trouble of making our home kosher for Passover. I know why I sit at the Seder night, and chomp my way through the matza and the bitter herbs. I know why I was able to see my two sons circumcised, which -- even if I believe was a good thing for their health -- wasn't easy. I did it because I believe that I have been commanded by God.

What's much more amazing is that so many agnostics and self-proclaimed atheist Jews do it too. Why?

We can answer the question in part by appeal to the value of culture, and tribal affinity, and family heritage, and more. But it's hard for me to believe that that's all. The Jews who perform these rituals surely have a certain sense that there's something of transcendent value going on. There's something that we can't allow ourselves to miss out on. Even in the darkness, we can smell the scent of redemption. And that's a tremendous virtue.

The plague of darkness, given a simple reading of scripture, must have been dark for some people and light for others. Who knows how that worked? It just did. But here's my Midrashic take on our Midrashim; an unpacking of the plague as a metaphor.

The Egyptians mistook the light of God for darkness. His majesty blinded them.

Apparently the Israelite enjoyed this blinding light. But nobody can see the light of God and live. And yet, if you pay attention to the verse, it tells us that they had light, but it doesn't tell us that they could see. They enjoyed the light, perhaps because they could smell it!

To have knowledge of God is to have knowledge of something that defies discursive description. It is to have knowledge of something that can't really be seen. It is to catch a scent of redemption, in the house of Egyptian bondage; it is to smell the fragrance of freedom and thereby merit redemption.

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