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Bo 5782   January 8, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     I do not know about you, but I am getting really tired of COVID 19 in all its variations. There seem to be an endless supply of variants of a virus that is able to infect us human beings at supersonic speeds. I am happy, thrilled, that vaccinations and boosters mitigate the severity of the disease, and each variant seems to peak faster than the one before, but the limitations the coronavirus places on our lives has become tiresome. We keep wearing masks, we keep our social distance, and we keep close to home because this virus does not care if we are tired and frustrated. It will infect us no matter how we feel about it, no matter how we feel about life and no matter how we feel about personal liberties. We carry on wondering where this dark plague will take us.

     And this is as good a description, not only of our lives, but the lives of our ancestors in ancient Egypt. I could make a pun here about the plague of darkness that is recorded in our parsha, but technically, that plague did not affect the Israelite slaves. We had light; it was the Egyptians who were groping around in the dark.

     Setting aside this pun, our ancestors were at a very dark moment in their lives. They had been enslaved for hundreds of years. Moses had only accomplished making their burdens harder. Egyptian taskmasters now had new reasons for lashing the beleaguered slaves. Each plague that Moses brought only hardened the heart of Pharoah. Oh sure, he wavered from time to time, but the Israelite slaves were no closer to becoming free after nine plagues than they were before the first one. There was one more plague coming; would this be the final one? Would it be enough to finally set them free?

     We know the end of this story. By the end of next week’s parsha the Israelites will be singing and dancing on the shore of the Reed Sea, saved from the army of Egypt and never to return to slavery again. But at the beginning of Parshat Bo, it does not look good for Moses, for Israel, for freedom. The Israelites despair if they will ever be free. As the last plague is about to begin, Moses commands our ancestors to eat one final meal in slavery, as freedom will come with the dawn. But the Midrash asks an interesting question as the slaves sit down to this meal. The Midrash asks, at what point, exactly, do the Israelites transform their tears into joy? When do they begin to sing of their liberation? When do they dance in celebration of their freedom?

     We would think that this joyful celebration would begin, as we noted once our ancestors crossed the sea. Or maybe they rejoiced over their freedom when they set out from Egypt to the Promised Land. But one Midrash has a different start to our ancestor’s joy. We read in the Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah:

     “I am a rose (havatzelet) of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” I am she, and beloved (havivah) am I; I am she who was beloved in the shadow (tzilan) of Egypt, and in a short time the Holy Blessed One gathered me to Raamses and I bloomed with good deeds like “a lily” and I said before [God] a song (shirah), as it is said: “You will have song on the night of the sanctified feast” (Isaiah 30:29).

     It was “davka” in the moment of darkness and tension, when they questioned what would come next, that the Midrash says they began to sing and dance about the freedom they were expecting. “In the shadow/darkness” of Egypt they began to realize how much God loved them and that made them sing for joy for the freedom that was soon to come. They did not wait until they were on the shore of the sea. They did not wait to rejoice when Egypt was in the rear-view mirror. They started their celebrations when they were still in Egypt, when they were still in the city of Raamses, the city that the slaves had built for Pharoah so he could name the city after himself. It was the place of much pain and suffering. And yet, while they were still there, they began to dance and sing in joy at the freedom that was soon to be.

     While this Midrash seems to be fanciful and unrealistic, Rabbi Aviva Richman, from Machon Hadar does note that at many points in history, when things seem the darkest, it is just before the return of the light. There are many examples where all seems lost and then suddenly hope appears and everyone is saved. This is not just a script from some forgettable action movie; it is a reality of life. In Jewish History, the Maccabees were outmanned and out maneuvered by the Syrian Greeks. The enemy had better weapons and were better trained. Jews were being slaughtered on Shabbat, the one day when they were helpless. But suddenly the tide of the battle changed. Small victories became larger victories until the Syrians retreated from Jerusalem and the Temple could be rededicated. Another example can be found in Israel’s war for Independence. It was only at the last minute, when a daring road was built in the darkness of the night that it was insured the modern city of West Jerusalem would remain a part of the new state. Things looked bad in all the other parts of the country. Everyone thought that a thirty-day ceasefire would give the Arab nations time to consolidate their victories and defeat the Israelis once and for all. But in thirty days, Israel brought in more guns, more ammunition and more of the refugees from the concentration camps of Europe to mount the barricades. When the fighting resumed, Israel took the offensive and beat back the enemy soldiers. After a few weeks of severe losses, the Arabs agreed to a permanent ceasefire, and new borders were drawn for the Jewish state.

     Think about this country and the example of the Civil War. When the Confederate Army entered Gettysburg, PA, it was a dark day for the Union Army and for President Lincoln. If General Lee could win at Gettysburg, it would begin to cut off Washington, DC from the other northern states. For the first two days of the battle, things were bad for the Union. Finally, on the third day, the Confederate Army made a critical mistake that the Union Army took advantage of to push their enemies out of Gettysburg and back into the South. Washington was saved and so was the Union.

     There is a reason that we say that things are darkest before the dawn. No matter how bad things may be, there is always hope for a better tomorrow. For our Israelite ancestors, the Midrash tells us that they had come to believe in God and that God’s power would eventually liberate them from their slavery. As night fell, they began their meal of celebration knowing that the darkness would give way to a new light, the light of freedom. The Midrash says that this was their reason for singing and dancing that night, they were sure that freedom was just over the horizon.

     There is a lesson for us in the celebrations of our ancestors on the eve of their redemption. Rabbi Richman writes in her d’var torah for this week, To the extent that our lives or our world feel stuck at times, the “Raamses” version of the origins of redemptive relationship resonates strongly. The theological love of Raamses translates into the love we express when we take the leap to be with someone in pain, even when we know we can’t make it go away. It is the love of day-in, day-out presence in relationships with children, parents, loved ones, or friends navigating chronic conditions. It is the love that carries us through a global pandemic. God and Israel in this formative stage teach us the force of a loving presence as we weather the storms that we cannot control. From inside the storm, this mutual love powers a sense of expression and agency, in action and voice (“good deeds” and “song”). Even as circumstances may be slow to change, or not change at all, we can all hope to build these kinds of relationships that are the root of any redemption.”

     It is no small thing to bring hope when everything seems so hopeless. It is no small thing to bring love when someone is feeling alone. It is no small thing to just show up as a symbol that no matter how dark the night, we can share our belief that light will come with the dawn. Shiva teaches us that our presence can help comfort those who are lost in the darkness of sorrow. Bikur Holim, visiting the sick, teaches us that just our presence can bring hope to someone who is being ravaged by disease. Someach noflim, raising those who have fallen, teaches us the importance of friendship and of the support we can give each other in times of trouble. Judaism teaches us that sometimes all we need to do is to show up and it will give those who are broken and lost, hope that the dawn will come, and it can come sooner than they might expect.

     This pandemic will end. The end may be nearer than we think, or not. We have had our hopes dashed far too many times to raise our hopes too high. But while we may not know exactly when it will end, the fact that we face this pandemic together, even if masked and distant, we can make a difference to our family, friends and to our community. Yesterday we were slaves, today we are free. Yesterday hundreds of thousands of people were dying from Covid, today we have treatments and vaccines to mitigate severity of this virus. God has given us the power to heal the sick and bring hope to those who are afraid. And while Omicron may set us back, we believe with a full heart that together we can beat back this plague.

     Let us fortify the relationships that COVID is trying to take from us. Let us work together to ensure that light and healing are still just around the corner. We can bring light to the darkness and joy when all seems lost. So what if we have to stand six feet apart and cover our noses and mouths? We can still sing and dance as each day brings us closer to ending this disease, to ending this isolation and to ending the darkness of the past two years.

     May God give us the hope and courage to sing and dance in the night in honor of the dawn that, God willing, will come soon, as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783