This week’s Torah portion Bo deals with the last three plagues, including the plague of darkness. The Torah lays out the frightening scenario that unfolded for three days and nights across Egypt, of complete and total darkness for the Egyptian people. The Torah specifically says that Bnei Yisrael had light, but not the Egyptians. The midrash teaches that the Egyptians lit candles but the lights kept going out.
In the spirit of the questions we ask at the Pesach seder—why was this darkness different from all others? The Torah describes the darkness as so thick that “lo rau ish et achiv, no one could see their brother,” i.e. the others around and couldn’t move from their place. The midrash in Shemot Rabbah 14:2 explains that the kind of darkness described in the ninth plague is the darkness of gehenom, the darkness of hell, a darkness of the abyss. What exactly is a “darkness of the abyss”?
It was the Chidushei Harim, the 19th-century Gerrer Rebbe, who explained that there is no greater darkness than when we do not see each other, when we don’t pay attention to others. When this happens, we don’t rise from our place and can’t hope to move forward. In modern times, social scientists Bibb Latan? and John Darley identified a version of this psychological reaction as the bystander effect, which occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. They identified it as a “diffusion of responsibility.” Contrast this with Moshe’s actions. When he saw a Jew being beaten by an Egyptian, the Torah tells us he looked around and there was no person around. Of course there were people around! But, it was only Moshe who stepped in to intervene and save the Jewish slave.
In the Talmud, in (Berachot 9b), the question is asked, when does the day begin? One opinion quoted is וַאֲחֵרִים אוֹמְרִים: מִשֶּׁיִּרְאֶה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ רָחוֹק אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת וְיַכִּירֶנּוּ when one can see another person, who is merely an acquaintance from a distance of four cubits and recognize them. Even the Halacha seems to reflect this idea that when does darkness end? When one can see another.
The deeper lesson we can learn as well from these sources is how we can help with a different kind of contemporary darkness. A recent study conducted at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and City University of New York showed that nearly one in 10 Americans reported having depression, with much of it going untreated. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the root of the word “melancholia,” which describes one form of depression, has its origin in the Greek word “melan” which means “dark.” All of us have the possibility, whether individually or as a community, of abating someone else’s darkness by being a source of light. How so? Often by just being there for them so they don’t feel alone and making sure they get the help, be it mental or otherwise, that they need. In that way, we can play even a very small role in, b’ezrat Hashem, helping others to overcome their darkness of the abyss.
Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, a practicing therapist, is scholar in residence at Kol HaNeshamah NYC and senior educator at the Manhattan Jewish Experience. She is the author of the best selling “The Jewish Journey Haggadah.” She can be reached at [email protected]