This week, we read the portion of ‘Bo,’ which, literally translated, means something like, ‘come over here.’ While the name of this portion sounds like an invitation, it’s more like an order. Right in the first verse, God instructs Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh and continue bargaining for the freedom of the Israelites.
The first seven plagues have already been lobbed at the Egyptians, with everything from lice to hail wreaking havoc across the land, to no avail. Pharaoh and his courtiers are having none of it. We know why, as well: God is behind the scenes, pulling at Pharaoh’s heartstrings so that he won’t let his Israelite slaves go worship their God. And yet, right at the top of Bo, in Exodus 10:3, Moses is called to ask Pharaoh how long he plans to wait before humbling himself before the Lord and setting the Israelites free.
I have to ask myself: is this a trick question?
Just two verses prior, in Exodus 10:1, God says, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart.” Theoretically, God should know just how much more suffering is necessary before freedom can be acquired, what with being omniscient and all. Right? And there’s a lot of suffering yet to come.
The last three plagues are, in this order, locusts, darkness, and the death of all firstborn males. Or, in other words, mass hunger, fear, and unbearable grief. There is so much to write about God’s choice to keep Pharaoh from seeing the plight of the people so as to inspire awe through destruction.
I want to write about the darkness.
Offhand, turning off the lights doesn’t seem like as violent a plague as some of the others. Think of the hail that tore at the crops, leaving the populace (who had just recovered from seven years of drought and scarcity) scrambling for food again. Then the locusts came and devoured whatever was left. Recall the boils, erupting on everyone’s skin, with family members and loved ones falling ill. I don’t need to describe the horror of an unstoppable, infectious disease to anyone coming out of 2020.
Darkness, on the other hand, is violence of a different color. It’s an inside violence, the pitting of oneself against oneself as the night outside awakens the night inside. Imagine, for a moment, those Egyptians who could see before the plague. Losing the sense of sight, they’re left reeling, hoping for a hold on anything that may anchor them, no longer sure of anything, including whether or not the ground exists anymore.
If I’m honest, this is sometimes what being a parent can feel like: wandering a desert of fear and shadows, never knowing if your next step is the right one or if you stand at the precipice, a chasm stretching before you.
I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here. And it’s not all bad — not even close. There’s so much light — mostly light — in parenting my little one. The joy of snuggling his fierce, warm, little body in the morning as he burrows in the blankets between my wife and me. The elation when he does something incredible for the first time, like say ‘Mama,’ or climb a ladder at the playground on his own. The sweetness of watching him puzzle through a toy, figuring out how to put two Legos together or build a tall, tall tower of blocks.
But there’s a lot of darkness, too. A lot of not knowing. Plenty of fear that we’re going to make the wrong move, do the wrong thing, or that something unrelated to us (like a plague or a pandemic) may harm our kid. My cousin (who is a superhero parent to three kids) recently likened parenthood to a series of pop-quizzes you have no way of preparing for. And, yeah, that’s close to the experience, but it’s more like you’re taking the pop-quizzes while riding a unicycle on a tightrope with no net. With the lights off.
I’ve only been a mama for 18 months, and I know that this is a relatively short time. My own mom, for instance, has been a mom for 37 years and counting. Nevertheless, one thing seems constant so far — the role of helping both myself and my little one navigate the unknowns. After all, our kiddo has plenty of unknowns and precipices to navigate as well. Those little feet will stumble, get up, and stumble again many more times. Those little hands still have to figure out how to grab a fork properly, to tie shoes, to hold tight onto the people he loves. One day, my baby’s heart will be broken. As a mama, it’s my job to hold space for the joy, confusion, wonder, frustration, anger, and love, and help where I can. Or, at least, that seems to be the job description.
Every day brings signs and wonders, as well as fear and shadows. With some help and a lot of love, we try to focus on the awe, the joy. Mistakes are inevitable, but, with a little luck and a lot of compassion, they can be wonderful as well.
So what’s a parent to do? Hard to say, especially since each parent is different. On a good day, I reach out to other parents, whether it’s to vent about frustrations and challenges I can’t seem to solve or to ask for advice. I read books, listen to podcasts, watch Ted Talks about parenting. On bad days I wait for the day to be over, and then cry or eat too much chocolate cake.
When I told my wife I was writing this, she said it reminded her of how babies see nothing at first, then black and white, then colors, and then shapes, people, and faces. These days, our kid has such sharp vision that he can point at the sky to show us a far off airplane. With that in mind, it seems like more of a natural unfolding than a chaotic stumble through the shadows. A reciprocal kind of guidance, with our toddler showing us light and joy even as we hold a flashlight to light his way. And, of course, all the other parents in our community hold little lights as well; by reaching out to one another the gloom is chased away. No matter how dark it gets, if we’re holding hands we won’t fall down. One day at a time, one step at a time, until the whole picture has come into focus.