Perashat Bo I: Dazzled by the Dark

Rabbi Yosef Haim, better known as the Ben Ish Hai (born about 1834), wrote in his Aderet Eliyahu that the ‘plague’ of darkness we encounter in this week’s perasha is the last that Moshe and Aharon are responsible for (he builds around a Talmudic dictum that a prisoner liable for lashing can only receive a number divisible by 3, hence the maximum of 39, and thus the plagues have to be 9), while the tenth one, that of the killing of the firstborn, was a separate entity brought about by God alone, not in the category of plagues.

If the plague of darkness is the final and greatest plague brought about by Moshe, there must be a special and significant meaning intended with this darkness, meant to differentiate between plague level darkness and, say, some garden variety power blackout.

The Midrash does not confuse the plague of darkness with a state of just being dark. The Midrashists note the unusual phrase in Shemot 10:21, vayamesh hoshech, ‘and the Darkness materialised’. The Mechilta reads vayamesh as derived from the infinitive l’mamesh, to feel about, and states that the Egyptians were immobilised by this dark, that if standing, they were unable to sit down, and if standing, unable to sit. In the Midrash Rabba, the verb is derived from mamashut, “matter” (hence my translation above as ‘materialised’). So the Midrash asks, how dense was it, and replies, as dense as a dinar, which is a small coin. This, of course, is meant as a teaching about the blinding nature of money rather than about the ontology of darkness, so the Midrash attempts to understand the actual phenomenon and its source:

…From whence did this Darkness come? It is a dispute between R. Yehudah and R. Nehemiah: R. Yehuda said, it is a darkness from above, as is written (Ps. 18:12) ‘He made Darkness his secret place’. R. Nehemiah said, it is from the darkness of Gehinnom, which is described in Job 10:22 as ‘a gloomy place dark like the shadow of death”’…

R. Nehemiah seems to make more sense. After all, this was a plague, a punishment, and thus the darkness emanating from a place of punishment would be appropriate. But how do we understand R. Yehudah? How does Darkness emerge from the metaphorical dwelling of the heavenly pleroma, an expanse we would tend to see as more allegorical of light? Another puzzling phrase in the perasha is that of 10:23, explaining how while the Darkness materialized about the Egyptians, there was light for the Israelites ‘in their abode’, b’moshvotam. What is this extra unnecessary word, b’moshvotam, meant to teach?

The Ramban takes a meterological approach in explaining the Darkness. He states that it was like a dark cloud which descended and enveloped the Egyptians, physically enveloping and immobilizing them. This darkness is something physical, substantial and created.

Rabbenu Bachye gives an alternative scientific background, working out of Aristotelian physics and characterizing the Darkness as a blockage of the light ray’s path. In other words, the Darkness was an absence of something, an absence of normal light. (I am more concerned with the meaning of light vs. darkness than with the ‘science’. A good example of a failed neo-scientific approach is taken more recently by the Torah Temimah, who ties all the above Midrashim together by suggesting that the Egyptians were stricken collectively with cataracts, thus blocking their vision with an opacity the density of a coin, etc. As we’ve suggested in the past, ‘science’ is not what we are looking for when we ‘read’ Torah. Science tends to be more of a method to ‘explain away’ a difficult text, rather than a route to finding meaning in language, and I think it is rare that a ‘scientific answer’ is ever a satisfying explanation for a literary question).

The Ben Ish Hai takes an intermediate position between physical presence and physical absence. If the Darkness was a total sun blocking cloud, how can it be that the Israelites had light in their abode? He answers that the word haya, there was light, implies a new creation, that is, the light the Israelites benefited from was a special kind of light, a newly created light not known before. This is in line with the position of the Ramhal (the mystic Luzzato of 18th century Italy), as quoted in the manuscript written by his student R. Michael Tirani (published in the Freidlander edition vol. 4).

The Ramhal explains, working out of a Lurianic meta-structure, that the light taken away from the enslaving Egyptians and seen by the Israelites, was that of the Holy Sparks redeemed by the Israelites in Egypt; the Israelites removed all the holy light, so that all that remained for the Egyptians was the total darkness of the Husks. If we may translate out of the technical Kabbalistic language and attempt to give it a current meaning, we might say that the Egyptians, after exploiting the Israelites, and now losing them as a result, lost all the spiritual potential intrinsic to the people they had seen only as chattel, that they missed the chance to encounter another people, a people with a spiritual message of value, so they got literally nothing from the opportunity.

This motif of a darkness emanating from Nothing, a negative darkness upon Egypt and a positive (new creation) light unto the Israelites, is found in the Beer Mayim Hayim. He explains that the Israelites were given a particular spiritual light, the light that the Midrash teaches us was created on the first day of Creation, but hidden away as a reward for the righteous, hidden so that the evildoers should not benefit from it. This light was given to the Israelites, this intimate light was given b’moshvotam, in their dwelling places, where the slave masters, the oppressors, were not welcome to share of it.

All of these readings are consistent with a darkness as negative model, following R. Nehemia’s view that the Darkness is related to Gehinnom, to punishment, whereas the light is the positive act of a new creation. Is there a positive Darkness model that would be consistent with R. Yehuda’s conception of a darkness from Above?

The Kedushat Levi quotes the Midrashic view of R. Yehudah, cited earlier, and states that this Darkness was not ‘dark’ at all. In fact, the darkness experienced by the Egyptians and the light seen by the Israelites was one and the same- the light of God’s revelation to the people. There are lights so brilliant that they cannot be perceived at all by those not prepared for them. Thus, when God showed that the despised enslaved Israelites were actually His people, the future vehicle of revelation, of Torah, this was too much for the oppressors, who could not and would not see this potentiality in the beings they could only see as chattel. On the other hand, to the Israelites, who were prepared and eagerly waiting for this light, this light which was the culmination, the high point of the plagues, this light was perceived correctly as radiating ‘more’ light in their abode, in the place they were at, existentially speaking. As the Degel Mahane Ephraim puts it, that which was a cure for the Israelites was experienced as a punishment by the Egyptians. There is support for this view from other classical sources; the Talmud in Sanhedrin 95: states that Sennacherib’s soldiers all died as result of hearing the song of the angels, a song for which they were not prepared and which their souls could not fathom.

I find a radiant parallel in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, where he describes the classical conception of madness as ‘reason dazzled’ (pp. 108):

Dazzlement is night in broad daylight, the darkness that rules at the very heart of what is excessive in light’s radiance. Dazzled reason opens its eyes upon the sun and sees nothing, that is, does not see the madman sees the daylight, the same daylight as the man of reason (both live in the same daylight); but seeing this same daylight, he sees it as void, as night, as nothing…

Several commentators add that this light described here, this new creation or stored light of the Creation, is given b’moshvotam, in the Israelites abode, a phrase also linked to the idea of rest on Shabbat (lo tiva’aru aish bechol moshvoteichem,”you shall not light fire in your abode”, in Perashat Vayakhel), and as the Tiferet Shelomo notes, the word b’moshvotam has the letters of the word Shabbat within it. According to these thinkers, then, this light, the dazzling first light which is the first act in biblical creaation, which symbolizes the potential for transcendent goodness implicit in the created universe, is the light we can experience every Shabbat, if only we were to look for it…

Perashat Bo II: Interpretation and Freedom

….We could argue at length about whether interpretation is a circle or a spiral: in other words, whether the interpretable object is assigns itself is simply constituted by the interpretation’s own logic or whether is is recreated, enriched, and thus raised to a higher level of knowledge through the unfolding of interpretive discourse…. (Julia Kristeva, ‘Psychoanalysis and the Polis’)

In this week’s perasha, we have the first commandment addressed to the Jewish people as a community, 12:2-

“This month (hodesh) is to you the beginning of months”.

The Midrash exclaims that the moment of this command is compared to (Shir Hashirim 2:12) “the budding flowers appear across the country, the time of the songbird has come, the song of the dove is heard…” Rashi, in his commentary on the very first verse of Genesis states that the Torah should actually have opened with this commandment. Certainly, one can sense the excitement implicit in this text, here is truly the beginning of a new history, of a people now about to break loose of the chains of the miserable slave existence and embark upon an entirely different mission which will continue to exert a force upon all world history from that moment on.

But why begin with this commandment? Why should the hodesh, the month, be the first communal proclamation by God to the newly forming people? As the Sefat Emet asks, what is the connection between months and redemption? Seforno, explains concisely,

…from this time on time will be yours, to do with it as you will; in the days of slavery your time was subject to your master’s will…

Loss of control over time, being forced to expend one’s time for someone else’s goals, equals hegemony, this loss of control over time may represent an acute form of slavery in our time starved era.

The Degel Mahane Ephraim, one of the earliest Hassidic commentaries, links the concept of hodesh not just to its literal meaning as month, but to all of Creation with the alternate pronunciation of the word hadash, new. The Zohar teaches that the world was created with Torah as its blueprint, the world is recreated, resuscitated, reinstated, and refreshed via study of the Torah. He quotes the Baal Shem Tov as teaching that the Zohar is interpreted differently every day; every reading is thus a novel one for each new day.

The Degel connects this teaching to our text as well, and explains that with every reading of the Torah, one discovers a new reading of the Torah; with every new interpretation one then actually recreates the world in that light. To support this, the Degel presents a very novel reading of this passage in the name of his brother, who used to literally join the last three words of the Torah to the first word, reading them as “before the eyes of all Israel, a beginning”, that is to say, through that text which is before the eyes of all Israel, the Torah, one brings about new creation, new beginnings; the world is nithadesh, “renewed”, every moment by God, as we are taught, and this hitchadshut, renewal, of the world is directly related to our chidushim, “novel insights”, our acts of interpretation of the text. Thus, our verse insists that this “hodesh“, “month” a word which caaan be read as “newness” or “innovative reading” is “lachem”, is given over to us, and it is “first”, primary, to all other creation and innovation that follow as a result. Our choices in our readings lead to an entire new array of creation.

This interpretive freedom is granted to all as a prelude to freedom. For as the Sefat Emet explains (year trn”v), the entire purpose of liberation, of the Exodus, is to enable the free construction of one’s own narrative. The name of the holiday which commemorates this Exodus, Pesach , “Passover” alludes to the Hebrew words “Peh Sach”, “the mouth which speaks”. The crucial moment of freedom lies within the ability to interpret and speak freely as one sees fit. As the Sefat Emet explains (in year trl”a), in exile and slavery there is no innovation. In true freedom, when one is bound to a liberating concept (i.e. God) transcendent of given existence, there one will always find innovation, new ideas, new points of view. The transforming capacity of innovation is reached in a moment of Buddhist like self-overcoming (as he explains in year tr”n), because the givenness and rote of one’s everyday existence can also be an inhibiting enslavement (like when one is so tired after a day of work that all one can do is passively absorb whatever is broadcast on cable). The inability to think one’s own thoughts, the sense of being trapped within someone else’s conception of reality, of outside decisions about what is important and what is valid, can be the worst type of enslavement. How acute do we feel this, in our information saturated era, where the myriad forms of commercialized media are continually bombarding us with messages on what to buy, what to “enjoy”, what to imagine, feel, like, and buy…

This reading suggests that the definition of freedom is freedom of interpretation. Freedom to interpret freely allows one the opportunity of creative transformation of one’s own unique existence at every moment of consciousness. What is true regarding texts, as Stanley Fish explains, would be true of our own personal narrative:

“there is no distinction between what the text gives and what the reader supplies; he supplies everything; the stars in a literary text are not fixed; they are just as variable as the lines that join them”.

The reader creates the meaning of the text upon his/her moment of interpretation. The argument made by the Hassidic masters is that this act of interpretive creation and transformation applies not only to the text, is launched by the encounter with the text, and the text being the reality we choose to perceive, to experience, to encounter and reformulate at every moment of consciousness. This chodesh, this newness, the freedom to interpret and create, is given “lachem”, to YOU!, to each participant, in the free and liberating act of discourse, symbolized by the holiday of Peh Sach,the mouth which speaks freely” a celebration of the preliminary condition of freedom from subjugation and hegemony, which gives back to humanity a level of control over all of conscious existence, an existence in which we are challenged to be

“recreated, enriched, and thus raised to a higher level of knowledge through the unfolding of interpretive discourse”.


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