The ninth plague to ravage Egypt was חֽשֶׁךְ. Darkness. Now we tend to think of darkness as the absence of light, the way cold is the absence of heat. But if you look at the creation story in Bereishis after God creates light, the Torah continues, “God saw the light was good and God divided the light from the darkness.”
What does it mean that God divided light from darkness? Honestly I don’t have the depth of the deep Kabbalisitc understanding at my fingertips, but obviously the true nature of darkness is not simply a lack of light. There must be something else to it. And in this week’s parsha, we get a little more insight into חֽשֶׁךְ existing in this more empirical form.
The Torah itself says just a few things about the plague. But the Exodus story has more rabbinic insight and commentary than any other section of the Torah. So if you really want to delve deep, the resources are there and there is some crazy interesting commentary to be read. One thing to understand about Midrash is that they aren’t always to be understood literally. You shouldn’t disregard them outright as there are profound insights to be learned, but you don’t need to insist just because you read a Midrash that that’s exactly how the events unfolded.
In the Thick of Darkness
When God first tells Moses about the plague, He says, “The darkness will be tangible.” From here, Rashi and the Midrash give over that for the first three days the Egyptians were in darkness as we would understand it. But over the next three days, the darkness became thick and viscous making it difficult for the Egyptians to move. Eventually it became so thick, the Egyptians couldn’t move at all and were stuck in place.
The metaphor the Midrash is giving us is that nature of being in doubt and darkness is absolutely paralyzing. On a surface level, just being in literal darkness, we are tentative. But when we don’t have clarity, we’ve lost faith in our leaders, our own abilities, and are completely lost in life, that’s true darkness. One of my friend’s sons, a 14 year old boy, was telling me that he tries to research how to clear up his acne. He goes to one specialist that recommends a brand. Then his mother took him to a doctor, and the doctor told him the brand was bad and the specialist was getting money from that company. The boy goes on Youtube to try and research it and he gets dozens of contradictory message. He now has no idea how to treat his acne.
How much worse is that paralysis when the way of life that you have lived since childhood (sets of values, community, your place in the world, what you thought you know to be true) is now suddenly and almost as a confrontation comes under question? Most of us would just disregard the overwhelming facts being thrown at us (as is the sad state of affairs in the world today). But for the Egyptians, the very elements of creation are uprooting their reality, calling into question everything they’ve ever known. What could be more paralyzing?
The Torah describes that the Egyptians, “could not see his fellow.” Obviously if you were plunged into the black of darkness, you wouldn’t be able to see your friends either. Why does the Torah need to say this? With all the other plagues, the Egyptians could seek out their friends and family to commiserate. Not with the plague of darkness. Each Egyptian suffered the blackness in complete solitude.
Though suffering is always terrible, if you have someone to share the experience with, that in and of itself is at least some comfort. The ability to listen to or care for someone can at least take your mind off the pain. And some of the strongest bonds are formed through shared suffering. There are stories of POWs who were kept in solitary, but were able to communicate with other prisoners via morse code. But the prisoners who didn’t know morse code and couldn’t communicate lost all sanity. To have to go through a terrifying and paralyzing experience alone is true darkness.
Light and Dark, Side By Side
“But all the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” None of the plagues (except the last one) had any ill effects on the Jews. All water that came into the Egyptians hands turned to blood. But if a Jew took the blood it turned back to water. None of their cattle died and their residence was frog and lice free.
So if a Jew and an Egyptian were in the same space, the Jew would see clearly while the Egyptian was lost in black. Light and darkness, two antithetical properties existing side by side. On one level the Torah is telling us that God doesn’t just exist, God isn’t just involved in our lives and has power, but that God is the master of the reality we know. We think that we are bound by our situations and our weaknesses. But the very reality we live in can be changed in ways we couldn’t ever imagine and that with God anything is possible.
On another level, the Torah is telling us that darkness is a matter of perspective. In the Garden of Eden, the tree Adam and Eve ate from was known as the etz hadaas tov v’ra, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Before they ate from the tree, they looked at reality from a scope of “is this true or is this false.” It’s only from when they ate from the tree that the value judgments of, “is this good or is this bad” became a factor. We can always view reality from the perspective of subjective vs objective. If it is subjective, it relates to, “How does this effect me? What does this mean for me?” But if we can take a step back and look at the bigger picture, divorcing ourselves from our own immediate value judgments, the picture completely changes.
For the Egyptians, of course it would be stultifying to learn that the idols you worshipped and the king you pledged allegiance to were powerless. And that the life you had built was all a lie. But at the same time, now they were seeing real power. If they can let go of the fantasy they had bound themselves to, they would realize they’ve got a tremendous opportunity to be apart of something momentous. What could be more illuminating than that?
Darkest Just Before the Dawn
I’ll just point out one last thing. In addition to the plagues, parsha Bo contains the first official Mitzvah given to the Jewish people. Rosh Chodesh, the counting of the new month. And though it’s cliche to say “it’s darkest just before the dawn,” cliches are said for a reason. Rosh Chodesh happens at the first sighting of the new moon, when the evenings are literally the darkest. The new month gives a sliver of light which will usher in a new beginning. Each month contains it’s own unique spiritual essence that now can be seized. So I find it tremendously fitting that this hopeful mitzvah is given in the midst of the literally the darkest moment in the Torah. Hopefully you will never find yourself in true darkness. But during the times that feel that way, know that an opportunity is likely just around the corner.