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Bo, Darkness and Heroes

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out you your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’” (Exodus 10:21) The tradition expands our understanding of this plague of darkness. It was so thick and enveloping that the Egyptians could not even see their hands in front of their faces.

This helps to explain why darkness is the ninth plague.

In that darkness the Egyptians were utterly alone. They only had their thoughts. They could see nothing but what could be found in their imaginations. Such ruminations must have given rise to even greater and greater fear. Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts ran through people’s minds. In their imagination frogs became transformed into crocodiles that devoured children. And locusts became vultures gnawing on the carcasses of dead cattle. Such is the power of the mind.

Such are the dangers of imagination. One would think that this darkness could serve as a moment of introspection, that the designs of the mind might lead the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free. And yet fear becomes an end in itself. It corrupts our dreams. It obscures our vision. We find ourselves alone in the darkness imagining the worst of days.

We are living within such a plague. Unlike the plague that befell the Egyptians our darkness is instead blackened by the 24 hour news cycle, the endless stream of information, and misinformation provided by the Internet, and our ceaseless notifications popping up on our iPhones’ screens. We think that we are more connected. We believe that we are more informed. Instead we become likewise plagued by darkness. It is a darkness filled with alerts and notifications.

Fear obscures our view, it envelopes and shrouds. The incessant barrage of information darkens our vision. We see disease where in truth there is health. We see hail where there are bright, sunny skies. Our imagination gets the better of us.

We find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between an ordinary frog and dangerous, vicious beasts. Can we see through this darkness and discover friends among those who are unlike ourselves? Can we see beyond our fears, and beyond this modern plague, and distinguish between those who are truly bent on doing us harm from those who are given toward companionship? We appear unable to see the hands, right before our eyes, reaching out to others in friendship. We imagine that more and more hands stab at us in this darkness.

The rabbis ask: Who is a hero? They answer: It is the person who masters his or her evil inclination. Can we summon such heroism? Can we master this inclination?

How is it that those we often call heroes are those who steadfastly hold on to their dreams and ideals even when imprisoned and surrounded by darkness? Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag for almost ten years, carried with him a small book of psalms. He held fast to the verse from Psalm 23: I will fear no evil. Even though surrounded by torturers and likewise alone with his imagination he chose instead to fixate on his dreams. He remained singularly focused on his wish to make aliya to Israel. How did he summon the courage to look beyond the tortures and see only a dream, a vision?

We, who in contrast live in relative comfort, become instead intoxicated by our imaginations of terror and evil, we become tortured by the threats leveled against us. The dangers are real. And yet they grow even larger in our minds. They grow more menacing in our imaginations. We who are unaccustomed to living with such fears allow terror to rule our lives rather than dreams.

We find ourselves in darkness. We find ourselves alone. We can see little else but our nightmares. We imagine the worst about others.

The rabbis advocated for a heroism of the ordinary and everyday. They were concerned about the inner. They wrote about the dangers of our intentions. They counseled: master the imagination.

And I continue to believe what I have often taught. In this age of terrorism it really does amount to such a heroism of the everyday. It is about subduing our fears and affirming the ordinary.

David Bowie sings: “We can be heroes, just for one day. We can be us, just for one day.”

The Torah offers: “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…” (Exodus 10:23)

I remain partial to Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s classic: