Parshat Bo

Slaves building pyramids

A Darkness One Can Feel
In the interpretative path we are taking, the Pharaoh is not a historical figure but represents a way in which we resist change and growth. We can be tyrants, constricting who we are and who we can be, as our souls struggle for freedom. We harden our hearts, we refuse to hear the truth or lighten our fixed thoughts or allow ourselves to feel.

Shemot (10: 21-22) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the heavens, that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.”

Shemot Rabbah (14: 3) as cited by Rabbi Dessler
Where did the darkness come from? On this, there is a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemia. Rabbi Yehuda says it came from the darkness above–the darkness with which God shrouds His glory, as the verse says, “He makes darkness His secret place…” Rabbi Nehemia says it came from darkness below–the darkness of Gehinnom, as the verse says: “A land covered with darkness, the shadow of death, and disorder.”

Rabbi Dessler explains that there are two ways of understanding darkness as a metaphor. Darkness from above is deeply philosophical or mystical. It is the realization that we come from nothingness and the visible world is an illusion. Darkness from below is sin that darkens the potential of being alive. Which perspective will be most valuable for growth? Mussar teachers insist we will learn better from concretely recognizing how we are limiting ourselves rather than contemplating a philosophical abstraction. There are religious practices, both inside and outside of Judaism that involve contemplating or meditating on nothingness. At a deep level both kinds of darkness are connected. But for most people, in our day-to-day lives, we grow when see have we’ve come short of our potential.

Thinking about a trait like humility — how might you work on it from these two different perspectives?

Shemot (13: 8-9)
And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, “For the sake of what the LORD did for me when I went out of Egypt.”

Rashbam (Miqra’ot Gedolot, Michael Carasik)
Because of what: Literally, “because of this” that God did miracles for me in Egypt — I observe this practice. Similarly, “This is the day that the LORD made me the chief cornerstone — let us exult and rejoice on it.”

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
The Mesillas Yesharim tells us that the very first step on a person’s journey to self-perfection is for him “to clarify and verify his obligation in his world.” Every person has to feel that the world was hand-tailored to his specific situation. The realization that the world was created for you, the redemption from Egypt was orchestrated with you in mind and the Torah was given specifically to you, should help you refrain from looking over your shoulder and rather focus on accomplishing your obligation in your world.

Do you agree that your spiritual journey is “to clarify and verify your obligation in his world”? What are other ways of understanding a spiritual journey?

Thinking that the world was hand-tailored for you might seem self-indulgent. Yet Rabbi Wolbe understands this as forcing you to face your responsibilities. Why might this be?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa (rebbe of the Kotzker Rebbe) (As cited by Martin Buber)
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words, “I am but dust and ashes.”

What does this add to Rabbi Wolbe’s words?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
To a [spiritually aware] person, it is as clear as the sun at noon that everything that happens in this world has a spiritual purpose. Its purpose may be to awaken us or teach us or challenge us. We can be quite sure that it has something to do with the purpose for which we were brought into this world, which is to sanctify God’s name and reveal His Greatness.

We are being taught to look at the Torah as a personal teaching — something that has meaning and resonance to our personal situation. In what ways does the redemption from Egypt speak to your situation, today? Knowing that, what obligation does that create for you?