“Anxiety is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Finding light in this plague of darkness

Paula Levin

I look around me and everyone I talk to is struggling. And not just with usual day-to-day stress of business or family challenges. With big stuff. There’s the barrage of bad news from Ukraine, Turkey, and Syria – human tragedy on a mass scale. An uptick in terror attacks in Israel, leaving shattered families in its wake. Closer to home, South Africa’s socio-political landscape looks more dysfunctional than ever, and a growing wave of emigration is leaving those who remain here unsettled and anxious. As a community, we are reeling from news of devastating illness and unspeakable loss. It’s starting to feel like a veil of darkness has descended – both physically with endless load shedding – as well as emotionally. But this is not the first plague of darkness we, as Jewish people, have faced. Over 3 000 years ago, shortly before our redemption from Egypt, the Torah records the events of the 9th plague visited upon Egypt. Darkness so intense an Egyptian could not move from his place, nor see his brother[1].

One of the gifts of being a Jew is that we have thousands of years of human history to draw from. This ain’t our first rodeo – or as King Solomon, the wisest of all men, put it – there’s nothing new under the sun. So we can look back at millennia of resilience and learn how to navigate the present. Even more importantly, we can look into the Torah for G-d’s own roadmap, because as much as it describes the origins and history of our People, it’s not a history book. It’s not even chronological. It’s an instruction book for getting through life – with G-d’s own suggestions for a rich, fulfilling, meaningful, joyful, and elevated existence. So let’s unpack how we can see our way through the difficult darkness we face before the dawn of Moshiach.

What really was so bad about the plague of darkness? After all, unlike the others, no Egyptian, his livestock, or his field was even harmed. It was just pitch dark! Rabbi Naftali Silberberg explains[2] that in physical darkness, even the things there to be of benefit become obstacles, as anyone who has ever stubbed their toe on the bed in the dead of load shedding can attest. Even a pile of pure gold would be a liability. The darkness prevents us from seeing the obstacle as what it truly is – there to help us. The obstacle in fact is the way! The antidote to this fog of ignorance is to put on our ‘Emunah glasses’, and trust it for what it surely is: heaven-sent for the purpose of our growth and that of the entire world. This is what the Jews were able to see during that plague of darkness. “For a mitzvah is a candle, and Torah is light.”[3] With the light of awareness that nothing bad comes down from Heaven, we might be able to better utilise the obstacles in our lives that are there only for our own growth.

The Torah records that during the plague of darkness, “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings”.[4] It’s worth pointing out – to ourselves, on a constant basis – that our homes are really the only place we can work to illuminate! How much else do we really control? None of us can fix the country, end the war in Ukraine, undo the past or control the future, and yet it’s a trap we fall into again and again – focusing our very life force in a negative direction.

When it comes to the ‘small stuff’, like a bad day, a water outage, a financial setback, a car breakdown, or a missed deadline, there’s a lot we can do to minimise its impact on our wellbeing. Social worker Tova Goldstein believes we turn small problems into major stressors by expecting things to unfold in a certain way. “That’s the definition of a problem – something I think should NOT be happening. So can we adopt a neutral attitude toward the event? Can we simply accept that what is happening, is happening? The ‘isness’ of what is!” She believes that it helps to have the goal of our own quality of life at the outset. “Is getting upset about something that has already happened adding to our happiness, adding to the light-heartedness we want in our homes? If not, why go there? Our powerful rejection of the situation creates our distress – and the opposite of that response is radical acceptance.”

I think one obstacle to radical acceptance is that we believe things should be a certain way. Rabbi Zev Segal of New Jersey shared that he once reported to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that a mission he had been sent on was not an easy task. The Rebbe responded: “Rabbi Segal, since when did you sign a contract with Hashem for an easy life?” “That statement had a lasting impact on me,” Rav Segal shares. “Later, when certain situations came up in my life – such as illness in my family and other troubles – I would be reminded of what the Rebbe said and that helped me greatly.”[5]

Radical acceptance, however, is not responding passively to our challenges. “We just have to look at whether this is something within our control, or not. If there’s something we can do to change the situation – we must act! But when it is what it is – we must look to preserve our own wellbeing. Whatever direction you look in, that’s what you see, so stop looking at what is broken,” Tova continues. “Recently, I had a 36-hour power outage and it was driving me crazy! I was messaging the ward councillor incessantly. Then my daughter put on the Waka Waka song from our 2010 world cup. It was infectious and we started jamming. In an instant the darkness was transformed into light-hearted energy. Everyone is different. What helps raise your spirits? Playing with your dog, having a cup of coffee? Be kind and gentle with yourself and work to bring the light into your own home,” she says.

It’s also really important to vigilantly guard and protect our homes from the darkness ‘out there’. Especially when it comes to the mental health of our children. “I am seeing more and more anxiety in tweens and teens in my practice,” says Educational Psychologist Ashley Jay. We need to turn off the news if the kids are in the car. Be careful about the topics of our conversations. Talking to other adults in earshot of children, about the need or possibility of emigration, about the brokenness of the country, about terrible suffering in other countries or other families affects our children’s mental health! “Our children are growing up too quickly, but there’s a lot we can do to help them with the anxiety they feel.”

Ashley explains that free-floating anxiety is when we don’t even know what we are worried about. “Anxiety is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere,” she says. “I see a lot of anticipatory anxiety in children, a fear of something bad happening in the future, like “I’m worried my parents might die”. It’s important to help children (and ourselves) to learn to ask the question – is this something I can control? I can only control my world. I can pick up litter, be kind to animals, help a friend, and look after my own body and health. In moments when the anxiety feels bad, explain to your child that feelings are like visitors. They come for a playdate, and it might not be a fun playdate, but they never stay. Ask your child where in their body they feel that feeling – is it an elephant on your chest, a monkey jugging in your tummy? These light-hearted descriptions help lessen the grip of these emotions.” Ashley has written children’s books bringing these characters to life, helping children better understand their own emotions. “I also explain that feelings are superpowers. They tell us what we need, they tell us what we care about. Being scared that mother will die means you care about her and you love her. So what can you control? You can give her a big hug. You can play a game together.”

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing; it can propel you forward into taking action. But it’s maladaptive if it’s affecting your or your child’s ability to function. So help your child understand the role of what anxiety is coming to do. “Sometimes anxious thoughts come to trick us. But not every thought we have is a fact! So boss that anxiety back,” says Ashley. “Help your child learn to talk to him or herself and say, “I’m not in danger. I am safe. I am not listening to your tricks.” This inner voice is the most important and sacred gift you can help them develop. There’s lots more we can do to lift the black clouds in our home, says Ashley. “Uplift your morning routine, wake children softly and gently. Play some music. Sing! Start your day with more joy. Don’t start by looking at your phone and doom scrolling through horrendous news or interacting with other people on WhatsApp. Stay present in your own home and bring in the light with a super hug!”

If we look at the Torah verse more closely, we see that the darkness was so thick an Egyptian could not see his brother, and I wonder what came first? Wasn’t the darkness really a consequence of the degradation, callousness, and cruelty of Egyptian society? Real darkness is when we don’t have the headspace for our loved ones, to see past our own noses. Being there for our brothers in their time of crisis brings light. Connecting to our support system when we are in pain brings relief and comfort, says Tova. “I see this in my work for Hatzolah Connect’s teen hotline. A teenager can be in a very dark place, but having someone to text, who gets it, who hears them, who cares, is so powerful.” No matter how dark it gets, we must remember we don’t have to do it alone. Phone a friend, share with your partner, lean on your support system – and somehow, a ray of light appears.

The ultimate darkness

On 22 December 2019, the first night of Chanukah 5780, a bright light was extinguished. Hayley Sevitz Varenberg, a young wife and teacher living in Israel, boarded a bus in Jerusalem on the way to visit her in-laws in Petach Tikva. But she never arrived. A terrible accident claimed her life. Her parents, Pauline and Alan Sevitz, got the dreaded knock on the door and phone call from Belinda, Hayley’s oldest sister, the next morning in Cape Town. As dark as the news was, it was delivered by lifelong friends, who stayed with Pauline and Alan as they processed the unthinkable. At 3am the next morning they arrived in Israel, where their children and more close friends awaited them. The funeral was attended by hundreds of people who truly cared. As a social worker and founding Director of Nechama Bereavement Counselling in Cape Town, Pauline was familiar with helping people through devastating loss. She had once suggested to a client who had lost her husband to do something meaningful in his name, and the woman undertook to celebrate his birthday with burgers and party hats at a local children’s home.

Pauline decided to take her own advice and that year on the 9th of Feb, Hayley’s birthday, she took a carrot cake to the Astra Centre, which offers sheltered employment to Jewish people with mental disability or mental illness. This has become an annual event. A tiny ray of light began to shine in this world, in the merit of Hayley’s neshoma. That ray was joined by another with the initiation of the Tehillim Team, a WhatsApp group of women around the world who pray for others. Started by Hayley’s Rebbetzin and dear friend of Pauline, Lynn Myers, and Liora Lurie, a friend of Hayley’s, the group unite weekly in faith and trust in Hashem. Weekly shiurim in Hayley’s memory by Rabbi Green and Nicole Green added further rays of light to the dense darkness, while Hayley’s Corner, a play area in the shul she attended in Jerusalem, brought further meaning. Hayley left this world in Israel’s winter, the darkest time of the year, with its short, cold days and long nights. So Hayley’s sisters, Ariella and Belinda, decided to make the light of Chanukah shine even brighter because she had lived. In Israel, America, and Cape Town, Chanukah candles are distributed to encourage the performance of this mitzvah. Lighting candles is central to Judaism, as light represents the Divine light, that’s why Shabbat and the Chagim are welcomed with light. Hayley’s father Alan also produced Perspex chanukiahs to be distributed in Cape Town and a caterer friend produced donuts and latkes to add joy to Chanukah celebrations. “You don’t need a lot of money to do something meaningful in the memory of your loved ones,” says Pauline. “It’s something anyone can do.” Hayley’s family’s response to the darkness was to bring more light.

The light of Torah, Tefilla and Mitzvot may begin in the home, but that doesn’t mean it is limited to the home. The Sages discuss this idea.[6] Was the light only in the Jewish dwellings or, more mysteriously, for a Jew, even in the Egyptian areas, was there light in the darkness? The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that a Jew’s light is meant to illuminate the path for everyone. To impact, uplift, and make holy not just his own home, but the world around us.

We learn in Bereishis that Hashem began his creation of the world with the creation of light, only to hide it away for a future time. Light, then, is the purpose of all creation.[7] Hashem contracted, so to speak, His Infinite Light to make room for the world. All darkness that we experience is the hiding of Hashem’s light. When we learn Torah, perform a mitzvah we reintroduce that original light into this world. And that is our purpose for being here. To make a space in this darkness for the light of Hashem. To invite Him back into the world and make a space where He is revealed.

The darkness is dense. Four fifths of the Jews died during the plague of darkness. It was the very first Holocaust. The Jews who crossed the sea had all suffered terrible pain and loss, whether the baby boys that had been ripped from their arms and drowned, or the family and friends who never made it out. How did they move forward? Rabbi YY Jacobson relates in the name of Rabbi Aharon Rokeach of Belz, who lost his wife, children, and grandchildren in the Holocaust, that this is why Az Yashir, the Song at the Sea, is written in the future tense. “Then the children of Israel will sing,” is not a grammatical error. We don’t sing because we have not suffered. We sing because in a future time our suffering will dissolve into great joy. The future tense construction of the words “Az Yashir” is the source of our faith in the resurrection of the dead, the time when we will be reunited with those we lost. At the end of this tunnel is a light so bright it already brings healing to those who await it every day. It is the light of Moshiach, the light of the future redemption. May it come speedily in our days.

  1. Exodus 10:22-23

  2. The secret of light,

  3. Mishlei 6:23

  4. Exodus 10:22-23

  5. JEM, Erev Shabbos Shemos 5776)

  6. Did darkness prevail,, Tali Loewenthall

  7. Torah Studies, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rashi Sicha on Bereishis by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

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