One of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the social isolation it causes, especially for the elderly and more vulnerable populations who need to cloister themselves away from even close family and friends. We take so much of life for granted, until we can’t have it anymore, such as our health, our family, and our ability to happily be in the company of those we love.
We have to look no further than the Torah and the Ten Plagues to see this lesson come to life. In the Parsha this week, Bo, we read of the remaining three plagues that befall Egypt before the historic Exodus commences. The ninth of the Ten Plagues is Darkness. Darkness was not just an eclipse of sorts. The Talmud states that it was a two staged darkening that began with blinding darkness, and advanced into a palpable darkness so thick that the Egyptians were literally confined to wherever they were situated. They could not even move. Yet, the Israelites still benefitted from light, even if they were standing right next to an Egyptian in Goshen.
See the verse:
לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃ The Egyptian People could not see their fellow brother, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.
Can you imagine the fear, anxiety, and unrest that must have descended on Egypt and the Egyptians at that time? The isolation must have been incredibly painful and frightening for the Egyptians and bewildering for the Israelites. The Talmud reveals that besides punishing the Egyptians, the plague of darkness also served to punish and eliminate elements of the Israelites who did not merit to leave Egypt during the Exodus.
I want to focus on one teaching advanced by the Chassidic masters that I find incredibly insightful. A careful reading of the verse highlights a vital truth for all time. Namely, that when feeling plagued ourselves, we don’t see, understand, and thereby attend to the plight of our brothers - לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו- literally translates to could not see his brother. The masters extrapolate that when we ourselves are consumed and distressed, we are naturally distracted and ignore the similar and sometimes more challenging difficulties of others. We must transcend this inclination.
If a snowstorm hits our driveways and the electricity goes out, let’s remember the elderly couple down the street who have no immediate family in town to help. If a rainstorm causes flooding, remember to reach out to the single mother with young kids who might need a hand with a wet vac. It is specifically during difficult times that we must remember the more vulnerable.
With this insight we can aim to shine a light into someone else’s darkness and reframe a plague into a blessing.
Community Scholar in Residence
Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey