I was once stuck in traffic in the dark Blackwall Tunnel for what felt like hours. Eventually, as I emerged from its gloomy confines, I had to blink at the dazzling light outside.
Describing the plague of darkness, the Torah says: “People could not see each other and for three days no one could get up from where they were; but all the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Shemot 10:23)
Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) explains that this darkness extinguished every light, similar to the darkness of deep caverns. This plague caused two deprivations for the Egyptians. First, since it was so dark that not even brothers could recognise each other, there was a loss of social interaction, with everyone isolated. Secondly, this sustained isolation caused a sense of paralysis meaning Egyptians were rooted in their place, unable to escape the situation.
Contrast this to the Jewish people’s experience; they were totally unaffected by the surrounding darkness and able to enjoy the benefit of light. This episode underscores how it is conceivable for different people to simultaneously experience completely opposite emotions even though they are in the same situation. How it is possible for someone to feel completely alone in a room full of people?
Jami’s Mental Health Awareness Shabbat this Saturday is an important moment to recall that the plague of darkness has a resonance with mental illness because it is often unseen, and those around are likely to be unaware of it. This can lead to feelings of isolation and despair.
It is vital to focus on and raise awareness of mental health and well-being. We must constantly repeat the truism that mental health is just as important as physical well-being, and there is help and support available.
- Alex Chapper is the Senior Rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue
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