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The Plague of Darkness Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

January 16, 2016

When we sign the Shema, we don’t translate the Hebrew word Shema, as “hear”, as that would make no sense in the non-hearing world. Instead we sign it, “heed”, or “pay attention”. Even for those who do hear, there is a difference between sound and comprehension, between hearing and listening.

Similarly with sight--we can see but not observe, perceive but fail to understand or pay attention to what we are looking at.

In his introduction to the Torah portion, Jake highlighted the plague of darkness, the penultimate, the next to last plague. Some commentators have asked, in that the plagues are increasing in severity, why is darkness the one that comes before the deaths of the first born? Darkness is just the absence of light.

Now it’s true that darkness can be very frightening, and it’s not a coincidence that the killing of the first born took  place at the darkest most fearful time of night, as do some frightening attacks in wartime.  Think about how even a very familiar home can become an uncomfortable place with eerie sounds and shapes when the power goes out at night.

But still, though darkness may be psychologically difficult to bear aren’t other plagues more serious- like the locusts which devoured anything that could be eaten or disease, which strikes directly at our wellbeing?

In fact in Psalm 105 which retells the story of the Exodus and the plagues, darkness comes before the plague of blood.

The rabbis explain that choshech, darkness was a very serious plague because it was more than just lack of light. Further darkness was a very devastating plague because having been unleashed on the world, it is not completely over, even in our own day.

The master commentator Rashi explains that the 9th plague was a special darkness that prevented the Egyptians from being able to recognize the face of another person.  He wrote:” They did not see one another The Gerer Rebbe noting Rashi’s words understood that the darkness was so debilitating because people could not perceive one another, they could not recognize a neighbor’s pain. Later commentators extended this explaining that whenever we cannot recognize the common humanity of another person, that is the plague of darkness.

There is a tradition that the plague of darkness had already begun well before the other plagues. It was necessary to the enslavement of the Israelites at the time the new pharaoh arose over Egypt. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  head of the Reform movement, wrote in a Torah commentary back in 2011:  “The Egyptians did not feel their neighbor’s pain, they were engulfed in the darkness of prejudice, hatred and indifference. “

This weekend as we commemorate the life of the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, we think of those times when prejudice prevented us from recognizing the humanity of those who were racially different than ourselves. We would like to believe that this was all in the past- in the bad old days of segregated schools and segregated restaurants, segregated swimming pools and segregated water fountains. Now segregation is illegal and we have an African American president.

But events over the past two years, in particular the deaths which prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, remind us that racial prejudice is not a thing of the past. It exists both blatantly but also  hidden in the recesses of our own minds as implicit bias, something of which we can be unaware but which can still powerfully affect our behavior.

Failing to be willing to look at issues of race, has been part of what has allowed what author Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow, a system of justice whose consequences are so racially uneven, leaving people of color so disproportionately found among those arrested and convicted of crimes, with profound consequence for the rest of their lives.

The failure to recognize the humanity of another person also plays a part in the stories I heard at a PACT meeting on Tuesday from Immam Tahir, a leader in the local Muslim community whom I have known for over a decade, and a professor at Zeytun, the Muslim seminary associated with the Graduate Theological Union. He told us about Muslim women being spat upon at local grocery stores, and about attacks on Seikhs, on Arab Christians, on Hindu’s from India and Pakistan, all of whom are confused with Muslims. He was hoping that those of us from the religious community would join in a coalition against this form of prejudice and discrimination.

Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote about the arrival of allies from the religious community when he was imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail:
“I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment, but I do know that once again I could see the light”.

Now it is our turn to be the ones who can bring light.

Our Reform movement has a campaign for criminal justice campaign and is asking us all to call in on Senate bill 2123-The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123)  This bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, put more emphasis into rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs, and limit solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles.  We are asking members of Reform congregations and their allies to call in to our public officials on the day after the MLK weekend, on Tuesday January 19th. I have flyers with more information about this on the Kiddush table.

We are also sources of light when we model for others the recognition of the humanity of every person, regardless of their ethnicity or religious heritage, and join in coalitions to let people know that hate is not welcome here.

The plague of darkness can be overcome only as each of us becomes a souce of light and recognizes the humanity of the other.

 

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