This week we find ourselves in the midst of Parshat Bo, and therefore in the midst of עשר-המכות (eser hamakot), the ten plagues God brought upon Egypt. Parshat Bo recounts the last three of the plagues, the second last of which is חשך (choshekh) — darkness. The choshekh that God brought upon Mitzrayim wasn’t regular darkness, it was חֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה — “choshekh afelah” — which according to the biblical scholar Rashi means a “thick darkness… in which people did not see each other for three days, and another three days of darkness twice as dark as this, so that no one rose from their place.” So utter was this darkness, that, “A person who was sitting was unable to stand; a person who was standing was unable to sit.” It was a darkness like a complete disorientating fog, in which one dared even move have lost all bearings, all sense of space and place.
These days, one could feel a bit that way. At the beginning of our contemporary plague, we might have likened Covid to the plague of boils or disease. Now, after so many pivots and iterations, hopes and false starts, we might consider we are in the midst of a plague of a thick, disorienting darkness. What next? What’s the way forward? Where are we going? Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?
What is the purpose of such a plague, and indeed of all the plagues? If “Torah” means “teaching,” what do the plagues mean to teach us?
A clue may be in the second part of Parshat Bo. Parshat Bo not only describes the three culminating plagues, but also the ritual of Pesach which we observe precisely because
פָּ֠סַ֠ח ה’ עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ
Because God passed over the houses of Israel when striking Mitzrayim with the final plague. Notably, the plague of darkness was also spared the people of Israel.
וּלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם
And for the people of Israel there was light in their dwellings.
What is the “light” that spares us the darkness — the חושך אפלה ?
I find meaning in the most remarkable of biblical verses, containing a most remarkable, and perhaps unique religious concept: the invocation that a child’s question must be answered. How remarkable that in the midst of describing a most dramatic, monumental episode in the history of the people of Israel and details of the foundational ritual of Pesach, the biblical text pauses to note that:
וְהָיָ֕ה כִּי־יֹֽאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם
And it will come to pass (in your future) when your children say to you, What is this service to you?
What are you doing all this for? What is purpose of this ritual? Of this Pesach? Of this Judaism? Of this teaching? To you. And we, the adults will be compelled to answer, to find a good answer, to respond the question of the child. And let us remember that this is the question asked at the Seder by the rasha, the so called “wicked child” — the alienated, disenchanted child.
So was we move forward into the realm of virtual learning—and believe me, Zoom can feel like it’s own version of a “thick darkness”—let’s remember what we are here for: to respond, to the best of our abilities, to questions posed by our children. Not merely the questions about the content they are learning (that’s really their job), but about the more fundamental questions, the emotional questions, the existential questions, the questions of what are we doing this for? Why are we learning this? As Rabbi Heschel says, a teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say?, the teacher (and the parent!) must be able to answer in the affirmative.
Let us answer our children the best ways we know how: with wisdom, with patience, with love, with commitment, and with אמונה (Emunah) — artful trust. Let’s find our best selves, our adult selves, our calm, intelligent, reflective, non-reactive, yet firm selves, who can respond even to the angry, bewildered question of the rasha’ — מה זאת לכם — what does all this mean to you? To us?