Several years ago when I was with colleagues on an Israel seminar we went to Na Laga’at (http://nalagaat.org.il/en/) (“Please Touch”), a center that, as their website explains, “is a meeting place for deaf, blind, deaf-blind and the general public.” We ate at the “Blackout” restaurant, a restaurant where you eat in total darkness and are served by waiters and waitresses who are blind. The meal is followed by Not By Bread Alone, a theater performance with blind-deaf actors and actresses. (Next time you’re in Israel I highly recommend both of these experiences!)
Not long after we entered the restaurant and sat down I found the darkness overwhelming. I couldn’t see even the slightest bit of light. My eyes, straining to impossibly focus on something, began to hurt and I had to close my eyes for the remainder of the meal.
It took some getting used to, but throughout the meal, my colleagues and I were eventually able to pour ourselves glasses of water and navigate the food on our plates with a fork, all while attempting to not get food in our laps. As we slowly made our way through the meal amidst the chatter, we could also hear the jingling of bells which helped our waiters and waitresses avoid bumping into one another as they seemingly effortlessly moved around the room.
In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we encounter the eighth and ninth plagues, locusts and darkness. Why is darkness a plague? Isn’t it more of a nuisance? Is it really enough to make Pharaoh feel threatened?
The darkness of this plague wasn’t just the darkness of nightfall, rather it was a choshech afelah, a thick darkness. According to midrash (Exodus Rabbah 14:3, Tanchuma: Bo) the darkness was so thick that that no one was able to move. For three days if you had been standing you couldn’t sit, sitting you couldn’t stand, laying down you couldn’t rise. For three days the darkness overwhelmed the Egyptians, but according to the midrash, during those same days the Israelites were given light. The Israelites, who had been living their lives under oppressive forces, were finally able to move about while the Egyptians lay unable to escape the overpowering darkness.
In the restaurant, those of us who were accustomed to easily physically navigating lit spaces struggled throughout the meal. At the same time, those who live without sight in a world that tends to favor those who are sighted found themselves in a restaurant intentionally designed so that they could easily wait tables.
In the restaurant, we ate absent of a sense we nearly always take for granted.
In the restaurant, the wait staff who live in a world that may often be a challenge to physically navigate, moved with great ease.
In Egypt, the Egyptians who were used to being able to take their freedom for granted were immobilized.
In Egypt, the Israelites who were oppressed daily could finally navigate in a light intended only for them.
Darkness was a plague meant to immobilize the Egyptians while freeing the oppressed. But today, in a world where we are all supposed to be free, darkness should not be a plague. Living in darkness should not be something that immobilizes.
I find myself wondering about that restaurant. Wondering what the restaurant would be like with the lights on and the room laid out the same way so that the sighted could see and those who were blind could still navigate the restaurant with ease. But, even more so, I find myself wondering about the world outside the restaurant, inside other restaurants and outside on the sidewalk. Are we really doing all we can so that those who are blind can find the necessary accommodations in their workplaces? Are we really doing all we can so that those who are walking around outside can navigate the environment with ease?
We’re no longer in Egypt. Darkness shouldn’t be a plague.
What do we need to do to make it that way?
Rachel Ackerman is the Rabbi-Educator of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD and has been serving that community since she was ordained in 2011 from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. There she received her Master of Art in Jewish Education in 2009 and during that time she wrote her curriculum guide on creating inclusive camp communities. She currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Washington Education Directors Council.