Many have commented on how Covid has paralyzed mankind with fear. The fear is necessarily vague and indistinct, incapable of being pinned down, hiding out in such clichés as “better safe than sorry,” and “we just don’t know!” We seem to accept the resulting paralysis, being guided by our fears instead of our hopes.
The Torah actually opines on this topic, through its use of the word “darkness.” During creation, darkness (choshech) is divided from light. And it is the light, and not the dark, that is called “good.”
What is not good about darkness? We get a glimpse when Avram experiences what is called “The covenant between the parts.”
As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. (Gen. 15:12)
With that dread came the news that Avram’s future was going to be constrained, limited by divine decree that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land. Darkness brings limitation. Which certainly can make sense: If one’s awareness or knowledge stretches as far as the eye can see, then darkness, by blocking our ability to see, terminates that very same awareness.
The text uses darkness consistently to describe the restriction in mankind’s horizon that comes from not being able to see.
The plague of locusts limits the earth, obscuring it from view:
They hid all the land from view, and the land was choshech; (Ex. 10:15)
The plague of darkness keeps everyone where they are, the original Covid Lockdown:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be choshech upon the land of Egypt, a choshech that can be touched.” … Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick choshech 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. (Ex. 10:23)
And just before the splitting of the sea…
… and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the choshech, and it projected upon the night, so that [Egyptians and Israelites] could not come near the other all through the night. (Ex. 14:20)
In all of these cases, choshech, darkness, is twinned with the incapacity that comes from being aware of our ignorance. Darkness keeps us paralyzed, inactive, afraid to go anywhere for fear of doing something wrong. Even the armies are unable to move when darkness descends.
The irony, of course, is rich. There is much in the world that we do not know (and many things we think we know are actually wrong), but we usually go about our days without dwelling on that fact: when it is light we think we know, and we can move forward based on that perception alone.
The challenge the Torah gives us is being able to act despite being in darkness, when we are aware that we do not know what the future holds.
Thus, at the Binding of Isaac, G-d praises Avraham for binding Isaac even though he cannot have known what would happen next:
I know that you fear God, since you have not chosheched your son, your favored one, from Me. … Because you have done this and have not chosheched your son, your favored one… (Gen. 22:12)
Avraham does as he is told, even though he cannot see what will happen next. Note that this same word for “darkness” is used here to mean “withheld.”
The Torah wants us to move forward even when we are terrified of the unknown. At Sinai,
You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, choshech with densest clouds. (Deut. 4:11)
When you heard the voice out of the darkness (choshech) … you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, (Deut. 5:20)
We are clearly instructed by the Torah to emulate Avraham and the people at Sinai: do what we need to do despite our very natural terror at the darkness, of the unknown, the bogeyman in the night who would paralyze us and limit what we seek to accomplish with our lives. Choshech is an impediment, but one we must overcome in order to elevate and grow, in order to live fully. We are called to overcome our fear.
[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith production]