Exodus 10:1-13:16

Jeremiah 46:13-28

A friend recently reminded me of the beauty of getting outside early in the morning when no one else is awake. The stars still in the sky, the roads empty and the world seemingly still and so much larger than we are. Looking out at a night sky speckled with stars is one of the easiest ways to remind ourselves that we are just one very small piece in a giant puzzle of atoms, mostly void of light.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about the plagues. Among them is the plague of darkness. “Moses stretched out his hand and there was a thick darkness ... the Egyptians saw not one another ... but all the people of Israel had light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:22-23)”  

A strange thing must have happened when all of Egypt went dark, except for the homes of the Israelites. The tables must have turned quite quickly. The focus, normally on Pharaoh and the Egyptian, must have shifted to whatever the biblical equivalent of windows was. All of a sudden Pharaoh and the Egyptians could only see what was happening in the Israelite homes.  

The plague of darkness was not a plague of blindness. It was a plague of sight. The challenge was not that the Egyptians could not see, but perhaps, it was that they were now forced to see what they refused to look at every other day of their lives.  

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, “Who Needs God,” religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference.” 

I recently joined a group clergy from the Midwest on a pilgrimage to the U.S. southern border with Mexico. We journeyed to see asylum seekers with our own eyes and ultimately to see what we can do. It is amazing what one learns when you focus on the life of those whose struggle is drastically different than your own. I learned how privileged I am to have been born in this country when I was and how ambitious the human spirit can be when all one wants is freedom. 

I learned that the courageous actions of young parents and their equally courageous children who are meticulously following our laws as they also learn our language, navigate our geography, our politics and our judicial system, is more than a full time job.  I learned that the things I worry about every day, the troubles that keep me up at night, are too often tragically superficial by comparison to the worries an impoverished mother from Guatemala has on her mind.  But mostly, I learned to see what I was blind to. I learned  to see what I had not and to change my perspective. It was, as our Torah portion suggests, the experience of a plague. And it was, as Kushner suggests, the most religious of experiences.    

Rabbi Josh Brown is spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Bath Township.

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