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The Face of One’s Neighbor

by Rabbi James Prosnit

While we are still a couple of months away from Passover – it is to the final plagues over Egypt that we turn this week when we read from Torah. The plagues that we recite with such passion during the seder, reach a devastating conclusion in our sidra:  Locusts (economic destruction of all agriculture); Darkness (terror); and then the (ultimate sadness) death of the first born — from pharaohs family to the commoners in Egyptian society.

As we well know, the Israelites are instructed to mark the door posts of their homes so that the angel of death will pass over, sparing their households from the massive grief that will affect everyone else.

But there is a bit of a conundrum, in that during the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, we’re told that the Israelites had light in their neighborhood. The challenge is that there was no indication whatsoever that to avoid that plague they had to do anything.

Three days of darkness throughout Egypt but light in the Hebrew homes? Why then, the instruction to mark the doorposts of their homes to avoid the 10th plague when it seems as if both God and God’s angels knew full well where the Jews lived?

Of course – the primary teaching, is that the marking was less to show the angel of death which homes were those of the Hebrews and more for the Hebrews to show each other and God their readiness to leave. It was less an act to avoid the final plague, and more of an action; in effect signing up for the Exodus. Count me in, they were saying. It was a statement of faith and willingness to express publicly ones solidarity with Moses and the mission.

But there is an additional teaching that emerges from the two plagues under discussion. Without getting too technical or too rational about the story before us – it is sort of a source of wonder how that plague of darkness was able to find its way around all the Hebrew homes. “Moses held up his hand toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt. People could not see one another and for three days none could get up from where he was; but the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”

Hard to imagine that it was a sandstorm or eclipse or some explainable phenomenon.

It seems much more likely that when we’re dealing with these plagues we’re dealing with symbolism and metaphor. Darkness so dense that people could not get up and see the face of their neighbor is what the text says. You might think that someone would have just struck a match or lit a candle – but this darkness was too intense. Or as suggested by the Etz Hayim commentary the Egyptian people were just so depressed by all that was occurring that they couldn’t move. The word melancholy comes from a root meaning “dark mood.”

Or more strikingly the darkness descended because the people could not see the face of their neighbors — especially those who lived nearby who were suffering so harshly from the evil decrees of pharaoh and the harsh oppression of slavery.

The Talmud asks the question, when can one say the morning prayers? In other words, when is night over and dawn arisen. And the answer, when one can recognize the face of another. When one can see another person – and recognize his or her humanity — that is when the dawn has begun to lift.

In these two final plagues we see more than just the coup de gras that marks the beginning of the redemption of the Israelites. I think we see an important teaching not only about ancient times but for anytime.

How important it is to sign up and notify God and the angels that we mean business and seek redemption – not only for us, but for all and any who suffer in the shadows of oppression. Last week for those who saw the movie on Rabbi Joachim Prinz we heard his famous words at the 1963 March on Washington, “I have grown up in Berlin and having witnessed the rise of Naziism.” he said. “The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers.”

Fast forward. As you might have seen in the news or on your Facebook feed on Wednesday 80 rabbis were arrested in the Russell Senate Office building in DC, sitting in and protesting the lack of action on DACA – the now political football that effects the lives of some 800,000 “Dreamers” who came to this country as children. I was very proud of the protest led by Rabbi Jonah Pesner and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center along with the ADL, Teruah and an organization called Bend the Arc. It a made a powerful statement against the darkness that descends when we fail to see the faces of those who are at risk or are unnerved by the possibility of deportation. 

I was pleased to be one of 600 hundred rabbis who signed a letter protesting our inaction on DACA, but I well know it is a lot easier to sign on to a letter or speak to you about it, then to actually be arrested by capitol police.  

It’s important to mark the doorposts and stand up and speak out, not just on this, but on many areas of the immigration debate. Time and again our texts imbue our headlines with meaning and call us to a higher purpose.