January 20, 2005
Out of Darkness
Parshat B'Shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
I once counseled a young man through what he later understood to be the most profound and transformative moment of his life: He was abandoned, without explanation or apology, by his beloved fiancée. After a crushing year, he came back to tell me that he realized, in retrospect, that his heart had to be broken, shattered to pieces, in order for light to be able to come in. As he spoke, I envisioned a beautiful clay vase, intricately painted on the outside, but dark and empty inside. This man realized, through his suffering, that the life he had thought was whole had actually been hollow, a realization that opened up for him the possibility of healing, of growth, of new relationships -- both with future partners and with God.
Terrified and bewildered after generations of physical and psychological abuse, Parshat B'Shalach tells of the initial moments of freedom as the Israelites set out toward the Promised Land. Interestingly, one of the first things that Moses does after Pharaoh sends the people away is collect Joseph's bones, buried generations before, which the Israelites then carry on their journey.
The rabbis (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 13a) suggest that this act reveals Moses' loyalty to the promise that the Israelites had made to Joseph, long before Moses was even born. I believe that its significance is even more foundational. The carrying up of Joseph's bones comes to demonstrate the integral connection between the Joseph narrative of descent -- down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into prison, culminating in the people's descent into slavery -- and the Moses narrative of ascent, up from Egypt to Canaan, up from slavery to freedom, up from servitude under Pharaoh to partnership with God. Had we not brought Joseph up with us, we would not be able to claim the paradigm of redemption as our central, unifying story. Ours would be a series of disconnected jaunts, some down, some up. Instead, we have a perfect paradigm -- in the words of the Mishnah (recited at Pesach): our people journeyed from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption.
In last week's parsha we read about the eighth, ninth and 10th plagues, which ultimately convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.
Strikingly, before the people are freed from Egypt, before the final plague is even enacted, the Torah narrative is interrupted to introduce the laws of Pesach: "This day will be a remembrance for you, and you will celebrate it ... throughout the generations ... as an eternal decree" (Exodus 12:14). We are taught to remember a journey to freedom that we haven't even taken yet! Think of it: A people whose lives are battered by slavery are told that they're about to be liberated, but before they even taste freedom, God needs to ensure that they will remember, forever, just how bad things were back then. The narrative structure indicates that the commemoration of what is about to happen supercedes even the act itself. The memory is so essential to our humanity that it needs to be reinforced before we are even out of harm's way.
Why is the Torah so concerned that we remember? Because our instinct is to work so hard to create space between ourselves and our painful past that we risk mistaking resilience with forgetfulness. We become comfortable and complacent and we don't remember the journey, the miracles, the hope that was born out of our experience. So what does our story do? It mandates that we not forget. We ritualize our experience in the darkness by delving back into it with a ferocity and pointedness that will make the experience feel real every single year, for all time. Why? Because the deepest human truths often cannot be discerned in the light. As my student learned, we have a depth of clarity within the darkness that we don't have within the light. In the light, we are complacent, satisfied, bored. In the darkness, we are raw, sensitive, eager to work with great urgency for change.
The Midrash teaches that it is not possible to see through all parts of the eye: "The eye is made up of white, with black in the middle. Through which part can a person see? Not from the white part of the eye, but from within the black" (Midrash Tanhuma).
So we revisit the darkness in order to remember the suffering. We remind ourselves to not change the channel when we see grueling images of destruction in far away places. We know what it feels like to be raw and real, and to have a sense of urgency. We know how to be present in the face of pain: ours and others. That's what it means to see through the black part of the eye -- the darkness gives us a clarity we wouldn't otherwise have.
But we must be careful neither to romanticize, nor to become paralyzed by the darkness. Our story is one of redemption, so, like Moses, we must faithfully march out of Egypt, carrying on our shoulders the very symbol of the descent into darkness. It's not enough to be present to the darkness, to dwell in the images and the stories of human suffering. Our responsibility is to gather up the pieces and begin to ascend.
In the aftermath of a catastrophe that has redefined the geographical and theological landscape of our generation, we must make space in our hearts to remember our experience in Egypt so that we can truly identify with the pain of those suffering so greatly. But then we must fight to reverse the course of the descent with courage, commitment and compassion, refusing to leave anyone behind in the darkness.
Sharon Brous is rabbi of IKAR, a new spiritual community in Los Angeles.