by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations). Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.
These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).
Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.
God said to Moses: Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt. And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days. No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days. But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)
choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.
afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.
The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)
What is so terrible about this darkness? If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out. They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water. They could comfort each other.
But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.
This darkness can be felt. The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”.1 Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.2
In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions. What if there is no god? Does that person wish I were dead? What if I don’t really love them? Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.
The Torah adds: “No one could see his brother”. This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh. As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues. Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.
Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others. Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.
At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility. The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness. The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up.3 Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.
Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” or spiritual crisis so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.
The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh. Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like. But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.
As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.
And I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness. I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping. I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters. And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.
May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.
- Shemot Rabbah 14:1, Soncino translation.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, p. 144-145.
- Shemot Rabbah 14:3, Soncino translation.