Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha


Hebrew version —->bo

Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life


BO…EXODUS 10:21-29


HOW is the plague of darkness a perpetual paradigm for all Israel?



REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA]

v.21  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.

RASHI…  “VaYamesh Choshech”—And the darkness will become darker [over the Egyptians] than the darkness of a normal night, and the darkness of the night even more dark than that which prevails by day. GUR ARYEH…  “VaYamesh Choshech”—The phrase connotes the coming into being of a unique sort of darkness, darker than that of a normal night.                                                                                             ONKELOS…  “VaYamesh Choshech”—And the darkness will be over Egypt [even] after the darkness of night has been removed…“VaYamesh”—from MoSH, meaning removal.                                                      IBN EZRA…  “VaYamesh Choshech”—The verb VaYamesh comes from MuSH—to touch, as in “They have hands, but cannot touch…” [Ps 115:7]  The sense is that there would be a fog so thick it would prevent Egypt from feeling.                                                                                                                                SH’MOT RABBAH…  “VaYamesh Choshech”—from the root MaSHaSH—to grope, as in “You shall grope [m’mashesh] at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark.” [Deut. 28:29]

v.22-23  Moses lifted his hand toward the sky, and a 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 Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

RAMBAN… This darkness was not merely the absence of light, but a thick, dense darkness that descended.  Just as a deep mine where no light can exist, this darkness extinguished every other light.   RASHI…  “Choshech Afelah”—There was a “darkness of gloom” for three days…That is “choshech

shel ofel”—It was a darkness filled with gloom, as it says in the next verse, for “no man could see his brother…”

S’FORNO…Usually darkness is merely the absence of light, and can be dispelled by lighting a candle.  Yet this was choshech afela—an opaque darkness that nothing could penetrate or diminish.

CHIDDUSHEI HaRIM…The greatest possible darkness [in life] is when “one person cannot see another.  For the end result of such darkness—when one does not recognize or feel the pain of another, is that…

“a person has no place upon which to stand.”

R’ H. KUSHNER… “Choshech Afelah”—Perhaps this plague was not a physical darkness, but a spiritual or psychological state of darkness.  The word “melancholy” comes from the Greek root meaning “dark mood.”  People suffering from depression often lack the energy to move about or to be concerned with anyone save themselves…Perhaps the Egyptians were struck by the realization of how much their own comfort depended upon the enslavement of others…In Jewish legal discussions defining how early one may recite the morning prayers, “dawn” is defined as “the light by which one can recognize the face of a friend.” [Talmud, Berachot 9b] 

But all the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

KOTZKER…  “And God saw the light, and it was good, and God made a separation…”

Citing Chagiga 12a, RASHI interprets this to mean that the wicked were unworthy to use this special light, so the Holy One set it apart for the righteous in the World to Come…And this is what our Sages taught: That Israel was able to see at this moment by this primordial light in which all is revealed and their dwellings are illuminated.

R’ L. KUSHNER… If the light had been hidden away for the righteous, reserved for the World to Come,

How could Israel use it now?  Redemption had arrived: they were now able to see things that had been there all along—and so, by that light, to leave the slavery of Egypt.

v.24  Pharaoh summoned Moses saying: Go, worship the Lord! Only your flocks & your herds shall be left behind…

The YEHUDI… Pharaoh was saying: One is able to serve God purely in one’s mind—without any action. If you truly wish to serve your God, why do you need your cattle?  “Serve the Lord” with proper intention, with a pure heart…And Moses [in essence] answered him: Good intentions which are not accompanied by proper actions are valueless.  The act makes the intent profound…

R’ A. TWERSKI…  “For mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah a light.” [Proverbs 6:23]  The Talmud teaches that ‘Torah begins and ends with acts of loving-kindness.’  This is the essence of Torah—consideration for others.

If one lights a candle for oneself, the room brightens for everyone. Likewise, if one brings light to another, one sees himself, as a result, by that light…

D’RASH…   “ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture

and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]

Address of Governor Herbert H. Lehman        The Harmonie Club, New York City, April 2, 1939 Emergency Conference of the United Jewish Appeal  

I am grateful that so many men and women have set aside this day to join with us in the consideration of the very grave and important problems that confront us. I thank you for your interest and for your attendance. We are gathered here today on what may well prove to be an historic occasion, the launching of the United Jewish Appeal for Refugees and Oversees Needs.  I have called this meeting gladly because I have conceived it to be a duty and at the same time a privilege to take my part in this great effort and to invite your generous collaboration….

The United Jewish Appeal proposes to raise this year at least $20,000,000 to be allotted and administered by three organizations of great standing and responsibility: First, the Joint Distribution Committee, with which I have been more intimately identified perhaps than with any other Jewish body; the United Palestine, which collects funds for the enlarged Jewish Agency of which I was for some years a member; and the National Coordinating Committee Fund, Inc., which deals on a nationwide scale with the sensitive problems of adjustment and rehabilitation of the new immigrants in this country….

We meet today at a time when world affairs are in a more critical state than at any time within our memory. European civilization is teetering on the brink of a conflagration whose possibilities of destruction of all the things we hold dear, are infinitely grave. We meet here as Americans, grateful for the blessings of freedom and opportunity in the land we serve and love, and at the same time as Jews whose hearts are wrung with compassion for our suffering co-religionists in other countries as well as for all other victims of oppression.

The generous tradition of our country to lend aid even in distant lands, and the basic Jewish spiritual principle, which is at the same time the foundation of all religion, to provide for the destitute and the unfortunate, are blended harmoniously in this effort today. Time and again our government has indicated its concern over the fate of down-trodden, persecuted peoples. From these shores generous grants have been sent abroad, whether to the victims of natural disaster or of man-made sufferings. Conscious of our responsibility to live up to our civic, philanthropic and communal obligations in this country, we need have no reluctance, no fear, to give additional aid to our co-religionists, and to other victims of racial hatreds and brutal, unworthy attack.

I have spoken of the American ideal of mercy and generosity to the oppressed.  How splendidly do the three agencies in this United Jewish Appeal exemplify these noble ideals of extending hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless, and shelter and refuge for those who are driven from their ancestral homes…….It is a tribute to the intelligent and statesmanlike qualities of the officers of the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Palestine Appeal and the National Coordinating Committee Fund, Inc., that they have reached the significant agreement of 1939, whereby they pool their strength and fund-raising possibilities, unify their efforts and give to the communities of the United States as an inspiring example of harmonious and cooperative effort….

The Joint Distribution Committee has since 1914 carried on the major and difficult task of bringing constructive assistance and emergency relief to hundreds of thousands of oppressed peoples in Eastern and Central Europe. It has promoted and stimulated wide-range activities on economic service, in credit aid, in child care, in trade training, in medical and health work. It has never given up its solicitude for those great masses of Jews in Poland, Romania and other countries who require aid in the lands in which they live. In addition, it has taken on the new and staggering burdens of helping the desperately oppressed Jews of Germany, Austria and other countries within the widening Nazi orbit of intolerance….

The United Palestine Appeal bespeaks support of the far-reaching programs of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. I am intensely interested in helping Palestine to be built up as a spiritual center, as a place of asylum for the homeless and the refugees, as a homeland for those who so desire. The people of Palestine, with restraint and dignity, have consistently proven themselves of the hardiest stock of pioneers. They have overcome one obstacle after another. They have built up the Holy Land for the benefit of all its inhabitants, Christian and Moslem, as well as Jew….

The National Coordinating Committee Fund, Inc., is a relative newcomer in these far-flung humanitarian and constructive activities. It has grown as the problem of the refugees has grown. With rare generosity, the President of the United States last year let it be known that this country, without altering its immigration laws in the least degree, would admit the full quota of immigrants from Germany, over 27,000 of them annually.  But they must be helped—adjusted to their new home, encouraged to contribute effectively to our common welfare. The immigrants must not be permitted to stay in congested groups in the large cities on the Atlantic seaboard. They must be resettled, trained, educated. These are the delicate, sensitive, difficult problems for which the National Coordinating Committee needs and deserves substantial support.  We shall be judged by the results which that committee can achieve.

The aid we extend to the suffering and the oppressed is evidence that we are not insensitive to the basic humanity so sorely needed in this distracted world. It is part of our keeping alive the worth and value of what we possess. It is a gesture of sharing which says to the rest of the world, “Taste a little of our good fortune. Share with us in a blessing that is not merely of the bread but of the spirit. Take this aid which we give in token of a way of life by which a nation of free men live on the American continent. Be encouraged and have hope in these dark days. Human freedom and mercy and tolerance yet live on American soil.” By the token of this hand of friendship and of mercy which we extend, we shall not allow that freedom to perish. We shall defend and cherish it and with God’s help we will share some of its blessings with the millions who hunger for it across the seas.

While we talk, the need grows greater, the sufferings increase. The United Jewish Appeal, with all its plans and hopes to achieve, challenges us, our Jewish spiritual heritage, our American tradition of humanity. If in the past we have dealt mercifully and justly by those who sought our help, let me say that this united and high-visioned cause, dealing with suffering and persecution on the largest scale in modern history, challenges us to render the utmost in service, to give in infinitely larger measure, to pledge ourselves, by helping our brethren, to live worthily to the high privilege of being free men and Americans.


Rev/Dr. M.L.KING Jr.…Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet…we have not had the ethical commitment

to make of it a brotherhood…We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.  We are tied together in the single garment of destiny,  caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms—“No man is an island entire of itself.  Every man is a piece of the continent—a part of the main.”

…One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done.  Yes, we will be able to say, we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies…It seems that I can hear God saying, “That was not enough!  For I was hungry, and you fed me not.  I was naked, and you clothed me not.  I was devoid of a decent, sanitary house to live in, and you provided no shelter.  Consequently, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven…

However dark it is, I will still sing “We shall Overcome.”  We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right—truth crushed to earth will rise again…

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope.  With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…

[Remaining Awake Through a Great revolution, Passion Sunday Sermon, National Episcopal Cathedral, Washington DC, March 31, 1968]

R’ Jeff SALKIN… What does it mean that there was light in the houses of the Israelites?

The first possibility: We must remember that we have light within our dwelling places. This is the teaching of the Hasidic master, Israel of Rizhin—the light emanates from within our homes.

The light was there because it was uniquely ours. There is always light in our dwelling-places. The trick is to know that it is there, and not somewhere else.

Our houses must once again be worthy of being places of light.

But there is a second possibility as well.  Perhaps we have been reading the verse wrong all along. Perhaps when the text speaks of moshvotamtheir dwelling places, it does not mean the dwelling places of the Israelite at all….B’moshvotam must mean that the light was present even in the houses of the Egyptians. Yes, even in the midst of darkness. It shows us, says Exodus Rabbah (14:3) that wherever a Jew went, light accompanied him/her.

What does that mean to us? It means that we need to rebuild the confluence between what happens in our homes and the religious message that we bring to the world. I am clearly a post-classical Reform Jew. But I am enough of a classical Reform Jew to believe that the Jewish people has a mission—that, in the words of Isaiah, we are called upon to be a light to the nations.

It is a piece of our task that we have dropped; we need to lift it up once again.

To be a Jew is to carry light into the darkness.


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