Moonlight in the Darkness: Maya's Reflections on Parashat Bo

maya2019.jpg

Please enjoy a Dvar Torah this week from Maya Zinkow, a lifelong Ramahnik returning to camp this summer as Rosh Tefilah! Maya spent four summers as a Rosh Eidah and is thrilled to be returning to Conover in kayitz 2019. She is in her third year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she is also pursuing a masters in Talmud. Maya currently serves as a rabbinic intern at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

Moonlight in the Darkness: Parshat Bo
by Maya Zinkow

With Chanukah behind us, our winter nights are without light in the darkness. In the midst of winter, it is difficult to imagine the blossoms of spring and sunny days on the kikar. This week’s parashah, Bo, plays with the relationship between darkness and light and invites us to imagine what light we might bring into the world, even at its darkest moments. As the parashah opens, Pharoah still refuses to let the children of Israel go and thus be free to be a people and worship God. As a result, God sends Moses to bring about three more plagues onto the people of Egypt. The ninth plague, that of darkness, is one that impacted the soul as well as sight:

׳׳וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ: וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָד֖וֹ עַל־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃ לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׳׳ (שמות י:כא–כג)

“God said to Moses: Reach out your hand towards the skies, and there will be darkness over 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).

It is clear from the text alone that this darkness is of a unique character, unlike the natural darkness of each night, or perhaps even the darkness of winter. Rashi tells us that the plague made night’s darkness even blacker and thicker. Another medieval commentator, S’forno, comments that night was completely removed and replaced with this stronger form of darkness which was unable to interact with light at all. No person could see another because even a flame could not make a dent in this type of unnatural blackness. Nothing, not even the moon, could shed light on the Egyptians.

In preparing Moses and Aaron for the tenth plague, the death of the first born, God gives the first communal mitzvah (commandment) to the people of Israel, instructing them that this day will mark the beginning of the counting of months. Rashi explains that when God said “החדש הזה,” this month, God pointed to the moon in its first stage of renewal, linking our Hebrew words for month, חדש/chodesh, and renewal, התחדשות/hitchadshut, which share a root. It is powerful that God blesses the children of Israel with the sanctification of the moon almost immediately following the plague of darkness. In the midst of the plague, the Israelites were not impacted by the overwhelming, tangible blackness but instead were blessed with light. God’s incorporation of the moon into our people’s calendar and ritual life is a gift; we are to remember the light and invoke its sensations even as we stand beneath the night sky.

One of the most powerful gifts I have received in my years at camp has been the dear friends and role models who have brought out the best in me, who have seen my potential even and especially when I could not see it myself. It is a joy to return that favor, to shed light on campers’ best qualities and spark within them ideas, passions, and directions that they could never have imagined for themselves. As we feel the light from the moon of Shevat, a month that reminds us of the growth that is possible even beneath winter’s frozen ground, let us ignite joy within our dwellings, and truly try to see one another, even amidst darkness.