Recently, there have been some major blackouts of electrical power across vast stretches of the United States. I still remember the essay I wrote in high school on the great blackout back in the 60's. In Johannesburg, where I now live, we experience localized power failures on a far too frequent basis. Sometimes it may even prevent us from enjoying a hot cholent on Shabbat afternoons.

All these blackouts are but minor inconveniences, though, when compared to the Great Blackout in Egypt before the Exodus. Plague #9 was Darkness, and from the Biblical account, it would seem to make today's power failures pale into insignificance.

There was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. No man could see his brother, nor could any person even rise from his place for three days. And to the Children of Israel there was light in all their dwellings (Exodus 10:22-23).

According to the commentaries, it was not merely an absence of light but a tangible fog that got worse with time. The first three days they could not see. The next three days they could not even move. But, miraculously, just down the road in the Jewish neighborhood of Goshen there was light!

This verse, To the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings, prompted the saintly Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin to offer the following beautiful homiletic interpretation. Every Jew is a ray of light. It only depends on his or her "dwellings." The environment in which Jew finds himself may sometimes cast a shadow over the spirituality and light he innately possesses. In no way, however, does this detract from the G‑dly light inside every single Jew. Not every environment is conducive to the light. Sometimes a Jew may be negatively affected by his surroundings. But intrinsically, every Jew is a ray of light.

Do you believe in G‑d? That's not enough. You have to believe in Jews too. Don't even be cynical about cynical Jews. I know it isn't always easy, even for those of us who, philosophically, identify with this concept. Often I have to argue with members of my Shul's daily minyan on this point. A fellow comes in to say Kaddish after losing a loved one, and the Shul regulars sometimes have their little private wagers: will he stay the course and recite Kaddish for the year or will he disappear after the initial mourning period? Some of the guys are cynical, admittedly from past experience. They quote the old Yiddish adage, "the malach hamoves (angel of death) feeds the synagogues." I often have to play the role not only of defender of the faith but of defender of the flock. Never give up on any Jew, I always tell them. Indeed, many a time we are pleasantly surprised when a Jew for whom the Shul experience was completely foreign goes on to become one of our committed regulars.

I admit there are also times when I have to remind myself never to become cynical and to stand by my own ideological beliefs. One particular incident some years ago stands out in my mind. We were invited by friends to join them at home to watch a new drama-documentary on the Holocaust. It was a long production and we were quite a few people. We decided to have an interval. The break also gave us a chance to pray minchah (the afternoon prayers). Among the invitees was an uncle of our hostess, a well-known, successful diamond merchant also known to be an avowed atheist. I wasn't sure what to do about him. Should I offer him a siddur (prayer book) or not? Would he consider it a provocation and get upset? In my uncertainty, I decided to do nothing.

Later, when I looked around he was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, the next day his niece confirmed my suspicions. He was upset that he was not invited to join the prayers. "Am I not a Jew, too?" he asked her. He was justifiably hurt and I made special efforts in the weeks ahead to pacify him, assuring him that I truly believed he was as Jewish as I am.

I learned an important lesson from that episode. Never write off a single Jew. Never be cynical of the cynics. Every Jew is a ray of light. All we need do is make the environment a little more conducive, and the inherent light will shine forth.