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In this week’s Parashat Bo we read about the ninth plague that befell ancient Egypt.

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Stretch out your arm toward the sky, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.’ And Moses stretched forth his arm toward the sky and thick darkness fell over all the land of Egypt for three days.  People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move.      (Exodus 10:21-23)

What kind of darkness was this? 

Midrash Shemot Rabbah (14:3) records the teaching of Rabbi Avdimi of third or fourth century Haifa.  He explains that a careful reading of the text hints that there were stages in the plague of darkness. “It doubled and redoubled.”  At first, people lost the ability to see one another, but they could still move, they could still act.  Then the darkness became so thick, so debilitating, that “a person who was in a sitting position could not stand up, and a person who was standing up could not sit down, and a person who was lying down could not get up from bed.”

This teaching comes as a warning:  The plague of darkness overtakes a society, a civilization, a world in stages.  When we forfeit our ability to see one another, we might then become paralyzed to act.  When we lose the ability to witness the humanity of a fellow human being, we become susceptible to an even greater darkness.  When we turn a blind eye to the suffering of another, we might lose our ability to act on their behalf.  When we become blind to the fact that every person is created in the image of God, we lose the ability to stand up for one another and upright before our God.

Empathy & Action Prompted by Liberation75

The first stage of the plague of darkness has cast its shadow over too many corners of the world and the internet. But good people everywhere are fighting against it. (Click here to sign the #Notonmyfeed Petition). We must take note and express our gratitude to world leaders who are standing against hatred in its many forms.

This past Monday I went to City Hall to thank Mayor Tory and City Councilors who unanimously recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Two moments stood out. The Mayor left his prepared notes for a personal expression of empathy.  He spoke of how influential his grandparents had been in his life and how struck he was to hear from descendants of Holocaust survivors that they never knew their grandparents.  The human ability to empathize with others – to imagine walking in their shoes and at the same time respectfully acknowledging that their story is uniquely theirs – is a powerful source of light against darkness.  Mayor Tory also praised our benefactor, Heather Reisman, for strengthening the TDSB curriculum by providing thousands of copies of Hannah’s Suitcase to Grade 6 students across the city.  This is a second kind of light.  The light that goes beyond empathy and moves to action.

Next week I will serve as the Reform representative of The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) delegation to the Vatican.  A series of meetings are arranged for learning and dialogue among Jewish and Catholic leadership.  Read the Pope’s recent and heartfelt address in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. By committing resources and dedicated leadership to Jewish-Catholic relations, the Vatican also shines the lights of empathy and action.

I remember a pre-Rosh HaShanah call when the Prime Minister addressed Canadian Rabbis.  He spoke about how standing on the ashes of Auschwitz shaped him both personally and professionally.  His formal apology for turning back the St. Louis came from that experience.  His stance on immigration policy and refugee relief was shaped by the lessons of the Shoah.  I believe his presence at Holy Blossom last year when we honoured the legacy of the Tailor Project and the leadership of our Past President Max Enkin was also a response to what he learned at Auschwitz.

Our Prime Minister has also made a recent statement which includes a link to Canada’s Anti-racism Strategy. This is another example of how empathy can move to action.

We are not alone.

I share these with you as a reminder that we are not alone in our responsibilities to push back the darkness.  For every article we read about a desecrated Jewish cemetery or a defaced synagogue or worse, we must find the voices of religious leaders, government leaders, community-based leaders, grass-roots activists, and ordinary people who are standing tall against hatred and speaking out against discrimination of all kinds.  Let us do the same.

Just as there are stages of darkness, there are stages of light.  Defending the Jewish People and Israel is required of us.  Empathizing with other peoples at risk is also commanded of us.  May the light of empathy lead to the light of deeds – large and small.  Let them come instinctively and often until good people everywhere unite to drive back the darkness of callousness and cruelty which threaten too many corners of our world.

May Shabbat bring a taste of the peace that is possible. Shabbat Shalom.

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  • Harry Nagata

    Dear Senior Rabbi Yael Spansky Read your column “Passover, hope …..” under Opinion Toronto Star, Wednesday, April 08, 2020. Thank you for your great message as it really fills out our learning about Passover as a Christian. May I add: “stay-at-home, physical distancing, wash your hands” Dayeinu. Blessing to you for your writings.
    Harry Nagata

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