Total Blackout
by Dr. Benjamin H. Englander
Rabbi, Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation

Describing the ninth plague that was visited upon Pharaoh and the people of ancient Egypt, the Scriptures read: "There was a deep darkness in the land of Egypt... no man saw his brother nor rose from his place" (Exodus X-22, 23).

The choice of words here, which is so native to Hebrew Scriptures, arouses thoughts that are not unrelated to contemporary circumstances and present-day situations. We are told that there was a "total blackout" in Egypt. Such was the darkness, says the Bible, that a man could not see his brother. When a man so lives and acts that he is blind to the needs of his brother, then indeed he has been enveloped by a deep darkness, Though the bright sun shines overhead he is living in a total blackout.

"None rose from his place" to answer the cry for help. I recall a newspaper report a few years ago about a murder that took place in a quadrangle of a large apartment house complex in Queens, New York. Investigation revealed that people heard the victim's screams as she was being stabbed; some even opened their windows for a better look, and quickly shut them again. None rose from their couch in front of the television screen even to call the police. The body was stumbled upon by a late home-comer. He lives in darkness who does not recognize his brother wherever he turns; whose heart does not leap forward to greet his brother and whose arms are not extended to embrace him. This is the great darkness, perhaps the most severe plague that descended upon Egypt. This is the agony of many of the cosmopolitan areas in the United States. This, I submit, is the blight of the world today.

There are too many people with callused hearts, Among those most powerful are the people whose hearts are insensitive and resistant to the needs and plight of anyone else; whose hearts cannot absorb the tragic beat of another heart and do not go forth in sympathy and understanding to the lives of others. He who shuts himself off from his fellow men, he who rings himself with a fortress that does not permit the cries of anguish to enter into his life, ultimately destroys himself. The uncharitable heart becomes the harbinger of evil and brings on cataclysmic destruction.

Pharaoh was hardhearted and cruel toward the Children of Israel, the Bible relates -- but you will ask, why visit an epidemic of plagues upon his people? How meaningful then becomes the casual reference to the two Hebrew midwives who refused to do Pharaoh's dirty work and kill the Hebrew male children at birth? Pharaoh could initiate programs, he could command, but without the consensus of his people he could not implement his designs, The Egyptian masses got a "sadistic kick" out of snatching a screaming babe from the arms of a hysterical mother and casting him to the crocodiles in the Nile.

Hitler could rave and rant, but unless the German people had been willing dupes, who lived in darkness, who saw not a brother in the suffering Jew -- a fellow human being -- the Holocaust could not have happened. They turned themselves off from hearing the cries of anguish and torture from the gas chambers. They turned themselves off from the stench of burning human flesh consigned to the crematorium; they may even have gotten a morbid thrill in witnessing the executions. Only because the German masses turned themselves off could Hitler's program of genocide have gotten off the ground.

Louis Ginsberg in his poem "Morning in Spring" writes: "The splitting apart of man from man dooms more than splitting the atom can." What is this darkness that divides people? What is it that tears from man's heart the love for his neighbor? What is it that permits man to reach such degrees of hostility and commit such acts of beastliness that one is ashamed to call himself a man? What explains the dark chapters,, the blackout of all human sensitivity, in the history of man? What is this darkness that descends upon man?

"All men are one" is axiomatic! God created one man -- not white, not black, not Jew nor Christian nor Muslim -- God created one man who was to be the progenitor of all mankind. The great Jewish teachers in the early centuries go so far as to say that he who denies the brotherhood of man repudiates the Fatherhood of God. The idea of mankind's unity is so integral to the worship of God that man cannot claim to be religious; man cannot regard himself as a believer, no matter how pious his worship or how many rituals he observes, if his life is a rejection of his follow man as his brother Anthropologists say there is no way of noting differences caused by racial or ethnic or national affiliations. The existing differences are of human creation. They can exist not only between races but within one family, within one community, within one race or nation. Science affirms that all humanity is one!

What is this that divides man? What is this that tears the love of his neighbor from man's heart? Envy, ignorance and suspicion are the termites which gnaw at the bowels of society. Men in power with distorted systems of values can arouse hostility instead of love, turn son against father and "a brother will fail to see his brother." Pharaoh, the rabbis tell us, induced a state of amnesia. He caused the memory of Joseph and his great contributions to the welfare of Egypt to be forgotten. "He knew not Joseph" (Exodus I:8), the Bible tells us. He sowed seeds of suspicion: "If war comes, they will join the enemy" (Exodus, I:10). From Haman in Persia to the modern Hamans in Russia, this is the approach. "There is a people different from all other peoples" (Book of Esther III-8) : They plant seeds of animosity, skepticism and discord and reap the whirlwind of distress; they turn off the lights that illuminate the soul of man and cast him into a deep darkness.

This then is what the Holy Scriptures try to tell us when we read about matters that perhaps appear unpleasant and unpalatable to the modern sensitive ear and aesthetic mind. The Bible never sets out to be merely pleasant. It is not meant to be a concordance of Sunday School tales. The Bible is dedicated to the truth and the truth, as all of us know, is frequently sad, tragic, and painful, The plagues that came upon Egypt take up many pages in the record of the Exodus of the Hebrews from bondage. It is the Bible's way of saying to us that in any world ruled over by God, in any universe that is founded upon moral law, there is a penalty and there are consequences for evil that man perpetrates against man. This is the law! That which is caused by evil will end in evil!

A parable is told of two brothers who drifted apart and lost trace of one another. Years passed. One day, as one of the brothers was walking in a forest in the early morning, he saw in the mist ahead what appeared to be the grotesque shape of a wolf. As he penetrated the fog and his vision cleared, to his agreeable surprise, he found that he was mistaken. The figure he had sighted was not that of a wolf but of a fellow human being. When they approached one another face to face, he discovered that it was his long lost brother.

We pray for the day when the rays of the sun will dispel the darkness that now envelops society, when all men will recognize each other as long lost brothers.