Can You See Me?

In a couple of weeks I will have the opportunity to travel to Vienna with Amy and two of my sons for a week-long visit. We chose Vienna for a variety of reasons after strongly considering Amsterdam, where we could have visited with Peter Drucker and Suzanne Vine, former Oheb members who now live there. But while both Peter and I would have enjoyed seeing each other, he discouraged me from coming in the winter because the days are so short. Apparently, at this time of the year it’s still dark outside well past the time that the sun would have already risen here in the New York area, and it sets in the sky earlier than it does here as well.

If you live in a region where the days are short and the nights are long, you probably get used to the absence of natural light. Perhaps that’s what the Egyptians felt when they experienced the ninth plague- darkness. We read in this week’s parasha:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. 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 in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Commentators have written about the nature of the darkness that descended on Egypt. Some understood it not as ordinary darkness, which is merely the absence of light, but as a phenomenon in and of itself. Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) said that the plague of darkness wrote that “the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light.”

Other commentaries understood the darkness that fell on Egypt not as a physical phenomenon but as a spiritual one. The darkness was indicative of a callousness and indifference that set in between people. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943, Poland) wrote:

The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled — no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of others.

Friedman quotes the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) in suggesting that such callousness was fueled by greed and a frantic chase after money. The phrase “golden denar” implies earning money not merely for one’s needs or to be comfortable, but to chase after amounts of money far in excess of what one needs (like $1.5 billion dollars!). That was the darkness that fell on Egypt—an indifference to the essential humanity of the other and seeing the people around us as obstacles to achieving our own goals.

The story of the plague of darkness reminds us to be vigilant about seeing and valuing the humanity in the people around us. Whether it’s a matter of racial diversity, sexual preference, differences in religious belief and practice, or differences in political philosophy, all issues that have afflicted society especially in the year gone by, we can’t afford to allow darkness overtake us, making us blind to the basic humanity that unites us. When that happens, we truly have a plague on our hands.

Thoughts From Vietnam

I write these words from Vietnam, where Amy and I are on vacation for the next few days. We’re spending some time in Hanoi and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Hanoi is a hectic and crowded city, with countless motorcycles that make crossing the street a treacherous experience. It is a combination of the old and the new, a place that wants to hold onto its traditions and experience the pleasures and benefits of a modern society as well. Our first day in Vietnam was spent in Ninh Binh, a locaton about two hours outside of the city that offers hiking, cycling and boating to explore the stalactite caves at the end of one of many canals. I climbed “Lying Dragon Mountain,” nearly 1,000 feet and countless steps similar to the climb up Masada, the reward for which was not only a remarkable view but the feeling of accomplishment as well (that’s where this photo was taken!).

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We were joined on this trip by two younger couples, both in their 20s, one from Poland and the other from Germany. Amy and I introduced ourselves and said what our professions are; I never hesitate to say that I am a rabbi even to those who likely know little if anything about Judaism, though I sometimes have to describe myself as a “Jewish Priest” to those for whom English is not a first language. Not one word was expressed nor one question raised by our trip companions about the relationship between the two countries from which they’re from and the subjugation and slaughter of the Jewish people. Could it be that the topic is unimportant or irrelevant to them? Or have their generation dealt with the horrific nature of what their parents and grandparents did and didn’t do to save a people?

Also of interest was the young Vietnamese woman who owns and operates “Ethnic Adventures,” the travel company we used to plan the day’s itinerary. I had a chance to ask her if she had any feelings about Americans because of a costly and destructive war. She seemed virtually uninterested in the topic, answering that older people might remember, but her generation just wants to move on. I resisted telling her that yesterday was Veterans’ Day in the United States, a day on which we not only remember fallen heroes but also on which quite a few people of all ages feel the sting of war and its sacrifices.

Should we separate ourselves from the darkness of the past? The Jewish answer is that we always allow ourselves to remember, even when our memories are painful, for it is not really possible to remember selectively.

I look forward to discussing these reflections and other experiences with you when I return in a few days. In the meantime, please make it a point to be at Oheb Shalom for a special evening next Friday, November 20. The Shabbatones, the Jewish singing group from the University of Pennsylvania, will be with us for all of Shabbat. They are one of the nation’s premier Jewish a capella groups (they were invited to sing for President Obama at the White House Chanukkah party last year!). Next Friday night will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:15 (during which the Shabbatones will sing), a delicious Shabbat dinner at 7:00 PM, and a concert at 8:00 PM. Please try to be with us for the entire evening, but it’s perfectly fine to come only to the concert. And…the Shabbatones will hold a “Beat Box” workshop for Oheb Shalom’s kids on Saturday morning, and then will perform with our kids to end Shabbat services. Don’t miss the fun!