Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Light of Diversity / Parshat Bo 2017-5777

The American poet Mary Oliver, has said: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

The following questions might strike you as pedantic: If darkness is an absence of light, how can you have a “box full of darkness?” And is there a “darkness” that is a gift—that is, in reality, light? The answers come from this week’s parashah, Bo, and apply to the troubling situation of the Trump administration’s troubling travel ban on Muslims trying to enter the United States and Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the harrowing conditions in their homeland.

In this week’s Torah portion we find this description of the ninth plague—darkness:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, נְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ. וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, עַל-הַשָּׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי חֹשֶׁךְ-אֲפֵלָה בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים. לֹא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו--שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וּלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר, בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם

Then Adonai said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward (lit. “on” or “over”) the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness 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; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21–23)

These three verses inspire numerous questions: How could Moses hold his arm on, or over, the sky, and what does that mean? If darkness is the absence of light, what does “thick darkness” mean? When all Egypt was enveloped in darkness, how could the Israelites have been drenched in light?

The Rabbis speculate about the nature of the “thick darkness” of the ninth plague. Midrash tells us this was not ordinary darkness. Moses stretched his hand toward heaven to signal that the darkness came from heaven.

Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness… Whence did that darkness come? R. Yehudah said, “From the darkness above, for it says, He made darkness his hiding place, his pavilion round about him (Psalm 18:12).”

The midrashic notion that the darkness wrought by the ninth plague was substantive and derived from heaven caught the attention of Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911–1981), the Slonimer rebbe.[1] He asked (as, perhaps, you did): “What could this possibly mean? What darkness is there above, where there is only light?” The Slonimer explained:

Moshe was told to stretch his hand over, above the Heavens. We would have expected him to be instructed to lift his hand towards Heaven. Moshe, however, was not meant to point with his hand in the direction of a higher place. He was told to reach above the Heavens, take hold of some lofty and elevated spiritual level, and bring it down to Egypt. There, explains the Toldos Yaakov Yosef[2], this wonderful light would turn to painful darkness for the Egyptians.

Moses, according to the Slonimer, reached up to heaven and grasped a fistful of “heavenly darkness” and brought it down to Egypt. But heaven is all light—divine light—so how could the light of heaven manifest as darkness in Egypt?

The Slonimer rebbe explains that people who find themselves surrounded by unaccustomed goodness or spirituality, rather than feeling wonderful,

…experience this Garden of Eden as unbearable discomfort. It is not relevant to [them]; [they] do not understand it… its light is blinding to [them]. [Their] eyes having become accustomed only to spiritual darkness are overcome by the light. This, then, is the essence of the plague of darkness. Moses took some of the light from above. It plunged Egypt into a darkness like no other.

Something good and wonderful—the divine light of heaven—can be experienced as bad and threatening by people who cannot appreciate it.

There is a realm in which we see this principle operating today. It is erupting erupting around us in frightening and dangerous ways. The recent and abrupt Executive Order (EO) banning Muslim from entering our country and slamming the door closed in the face of Syrian refugees, is a symptom of darkness that has long affected many Americans: racial bigotry and xenophobia. Its roots lie in the ambivalent and turbulent history of immigration to this country.

Prior to the 19th century, American was a largely white and homogenous society that paid little heed to the natives whom they had politically sidelined after wrested their land by unquestionably despicable means. John Jay (1795–1801), the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, reflected the sentiment of many when he wrote: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” Sadly, his words resonate with a great many Americans to this day.

Since the early 19th century, this country has seen massive waves of immigration crashing against its shores. Most of us, including the current occupant of the White House[3], can trace our roots to ancestors who immigrated here after the Civil War. People from diverse lands brought their cultures, customs, languages, and religious traditions in tow. The white establishment found this threatening. Irish- and Italian- and Chinese-Americans recall the sting. The metaphor of a “Melting Pot”[4]  expressed the hope that immigrants would assimilate into the dominant culture and shed their particularity and ethnicity.

In 1908, Israel Zangwill’s play, “The Melting Pot” premiered.  The protagonist, David Quixona, a Jewish surviver of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, composes the “American Symphony,” a musical paean to a society without ethnic identities and cultural divisions, where everyone assimilates into the great “Melting Pot.” David falls in love with the Vera, a Christian Russian immigrant. Their sublime love is threatened when David learns that Vera’s father is the very officer responsible for the massacre of his relatives in Russia. Vera’s father confesses his guilt, the symphony is performed, the crowd applauds exuberantly, David and Vera’s pure love is confirmed, and the curtain falls. On stage, everyone lives happily ever after. But this is theater, not real life. On the streets and in the towns of America, the melting pot never materialized.

In real life, Americans didn’t form a fondue; many chose to retain elements of their ethnicity and culture as fundamental elements of identity.

A new idea arose: It was possible to positively affirm the diversity of America as one of its strengths. American society was more like fruit salad than cheese fondue; respectful recognition of differences would help us thrive. All Americans could affirm the overriding value and importance of democracy, the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “All men are created equal,” the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and those that came through the struggle for civil rights while still retaining their distinct religious, ethnic, and cultural identities. America has room enough for all of us.

Bottom line: Diversity is a fact of life in Western society. It is a reflection of reality, as well an appeal to an ideal.

The reality of diversity does not demand that each of us view favorably every custom or value that others espouse, nor subscribe to every idea proffered by one or another group.

But it does call upon us to learn about cultures that are not ours, and to acknowledge that we are all children of God. As an ideal, acknowledging and celebrating diversity encourages us to learn tolerance and cultivate respect for others, live together in mutual respect  and constructive engagement, and promote human and civil rights. The acceptance of diversity teaches us to reject not only ethnic cleansing and genocide abroad, but also calls upon us to repudiate bigotry and institutionalized racism at home.

For me, the acceptance and celebration of diversity is divine light, the very same that Moses reached into heaven and brought down into Egypt. But those unaccustomed to this worldview experience, in the Slonimer rebbe’s words, “unbearable discomfort.” For them, the “light is blinding”—they find it overwhelming and threatening. We are seeing that happening throughout the country: racist incidents rose precipitously in the days after the presidential election. Now racist values are informing top political appointees and policies.

The recent and shocking EO[5] banning Syrian refugees and Muslim immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States actually makes us—and especially our military personnel working abroad—less safe. Issued by President Trump, it is not (as claimed) designed to protect us from terrorists, but rather to indefinitely turn away desperate Syrian refugees, and shut America’s door to Muslims from seven countries for 90 days. Inasmuch as Christians from Muslim countries will be allowed entry, this is unquestionably religious discrimination. It should be noted that none  of the 9/11 terrorists, nor any of the lone wolf terrorists since 9/11[6] came from any of these seven countries.

More than one thousand employees of the State Department signed onto a “dissent cable’ registering their opposition to the travel ban yesterday (1/31/2017) saying, in part, “This ban stands in opposition to core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.” The dissent cable expresses the view of these career diplomats and civil servants that the EO is wrong-minded and dangerous:

As consular professionals, Foreign Service Officers, and members of the Civil Service, we see every day the value that “Secure Borders and Open Doors” brings to our nation. A policy which closes our doors to over 200 million legitimate travelers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travelers who intend to harm Americans from using the visit system to enter the United States will not achieve its aim of making our country safer. Moreover, such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants…

The United States is a nation of immigrants, starting from its very origins. The concept that immigrants and foreigners are welcome is an essential element of our society, our government, and our foreign policy. So, too, is the concept that we are all equal under the law that we as a nation abhor discrimination, whether it is based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. Combined together, that means we have a special obligation to maintain an immigration system that is as free as possible from discrimination, that does not have implied or actual religious tests, and that views individuals as individuals, not as part of stereotyped groups.[7]

The text of the dissent cable goes on to delineate alternative and superior ways to protect the people of the United States from terrorist threats through more effective vetting procedures. As soon as it was known that the State Department employees were preparing a dissent cable, Mr. Trump sent his press secretary out before the microphones to say of the State Department employees who signed the “dissent cable” that “They should either get with the program or they can go.” Is that the voice of openness and democracy?

Meanwhile,  Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, unconvinced that the EO was lawful, communicated in a letter that she would instruct Justice Department lawyers not to defend the EO in court. Within hours, Mr. Trump fired Ms. Yates. The White House issued a news release accusing Yates, who for 27 years served both Democratic and Republican administrations, of “betraying the Department of Justice.”[8]

Through our nation’s history, immigration has brought out the best and the worst in Americans. For some, diversity inspires the divine light of openness, compassion, and generosity. For others, that same light incites isolationism, xenophobia, and hatred. For those, who like the Hebrews, enjoy light in their dwellings, may their light ever shine brightly. For those for whom the light of diversity casts a dark pall of fear and hatred, may the words of Mary Oliver someday be theirs: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

The divine light of God’s love and compassion emanates from the bronze colossus’s beacon guarding New York’s harbor, where my (and perhaps your) ancestors were welcomed into this country.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[9]

In the memory of the 935 Jewish souls aboard the St. Louis, and in the name of the values we hold holy and precious, we need to work with people of good will everywhere to get this EO overturned and open America’s doors to refugees and immigrants.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911–1981) was the spiritual leader of a small hasidic group in Slonim in Belarus. He was sent to live in Palestine when he was young. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust, and most of the Slonimer community was wiped out, but Rabbi Berezovsky built a new community in Israel.
[2] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne (1710–1784) was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. He wrote Toldot Yaakov Yosef, the first hasidic book to be published. It was a collection of teachings he had learned from the Besh”t.
[4] The term “melting pot” derives from Israel Zangwill’s play, “The Melting Pot,” about the Quixanos, a the members of Russian Jewish immigrant family that, having survived the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, immigrate to the United State. In an effort to erase the horrors of their past, they idealize the vision of a society without ethnic distinctions and divisions. Such a society could become a “melting pot” if all newcomers assimilated in to the dominant culture. The protagonist, David Quixano, contemplating the variety of people coming to America’s shores, declares, “Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God… what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”
[5] "Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.”
[6] Including the attacks at LAX, Little Rock, Ft. Hood, the Boston marathon, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, and Orlando. The 9/11 terrorists and  the lone wolf terrorists came from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Pakistan, and the United States. The seven banned Muslim nations are: Syria, Iran Iraq Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya. There is no overlap.
[7] The full text of the dissent cable is available at:
[9] From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. See

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