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A Constant Presence in the World
One of the most powerful aspects of our tradition is that the practice of Judaism does not demand that we draw distinctions between a sacred plane and the everyday existence in which we live. Instead, it helps us to contextualize our daily reality so that we can maintain an awareness of the sanctity of the world as we negotiate our way through it. Nowhere is this clearer than in our daily liturgy.
Each morning, we proclaim God's holiness not only by praising God bimkomo, in God's place, but by also exclaiming: "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of hosts, the entire earth is full of God's glory." God not only occupies a heavenly realm, but fills the earth with evidence of divine presence.
But how can we wake up in the morning and perceive God in the world around us? Our liturgy answers that, too. It suggests that we reframe our perception of the morning light as, not only miraculous in its own right, but also as a visible manifestation of God's presence. In the blessings that surround the recitation of the Shema, we praise God as the Creator of light. We describe God as the One who bathes the world and its inhabitants with the light of mercy, and who renews the work of creation each day.
We ask God to demonstrate the Divine Presence in Israel once again by petitioning for a "new light to shine on Zion."
And at the end of the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, we pray that God will bless us with the light of God's countenance, acknowledging that when we see the morning light we become aware of God's gifts to us of a living Torah, of love, grace, justice and mercy.
The rabbis in the Talmud expand the logic of this light imagery even further. In the Babylonian Talmud, when the rabbis debate when we may begin to offer our morning prayers, they conclude that one may recite the Shema at the moment when there is enough light to recognize another person's face from a distance of four amot, about six feet.
In other words, even though the details of the world around us may begin to take shape in the first stirrings of the morning light, we cannot perceive God's presence in the world until we can also recognize the individuality of those around us.
All of this begins to explain why we read in Parshat Bo this week that, as the intensity of the plagues builds, the penultimate plague -- second in severity only to the slaying of the first born -- is the plague of darkness. Early in the book of Exodus, Parshat Bo contains the last three of the 10 plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians as a way of demonstrating God's divine might to Pharaoh in order to facilitate the emancipation of the Israelites.
Last week, we read about the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle disease, boils and hail. This week, we read: "Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt. ... People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was."
Without an appreciation for the way that our tradition understands that light is synonymous with God's presence, darkness seems like a juvenile fear that we outgrow by adolescence. After our perception of light is placed into this context, we can understand the terror presented by all-encompassing darkness as the fear of God receding from our presence. The Egyptians not only lost the ability to see God around them; they lost the ability to perceive the Divine in their relationships with each other.
When we read this passage, let us compare the paralysis and isolation of the plague of darkness to the splendor of the morning light, and how God's presence disseminates it throughout the world. u
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.