“The Plague of Darkness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we learn of the eighth, ninth and tenth of the ten plagues–locusts, darkness and the death of the first born.

As previously noted, the structure of the ten plagues is not arbitrary. In fact, their organization is most revealing (see Bo 5763-2003). Nine of the ten plagues are actually arranged into three groups of three plagues each. The tenth plague, death of the first born, stands alone.

The first plague of each triplet always takes place at the waterside. The second plague of each triplet usually takes place in Pharaoh’s palace. The third plague always comes without warning. Consequently, we find that the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, arrives without any warning.

In Exodus 10:21, we read that G-d tells Moses, “N’tay yahd’chah ahl ha’shah’mah’yim, vee’hee cho’shech ahl Eretz Mitz’ra’yim, v’ya’maysh cho’shech,” Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be palpable. When Moses stretches forth his hand toward the heavens, a thick darkness appears throughout the land of Egypt for a three day period. No man could see his brother, nor could anyone rise from his place for a three day period. But, for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings.

In response to the plague of darkness, Pharaoh summons Moses and orders him out of Egypt. This time the Israelites are permitted to take their children with them, but must leave their flocks and cattle behind. When Moses insists that the livestock must go with them as well, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Ordering Moses out of his presence, Pharaoh warns Moses not to see his face anymore (Exodus 10:28), “For on the day that you see my face, you shall surely die!” Confirming Pharaoh’s threat, Moses responds (Exodus 10:29): “I shall never see your face again!”

G-d then informs Moses to expect the arrival of the tenth, and most dreaded, of the plagues–the death of the first born.

Basing his interpretation on the Midrash, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) concludes that because the words “three days” appear twice in the verse, the plague of darkness lasted for at least six days. He notes, however, a difference between the first three days and the last three days. During the first three days there was a darkness of gloom, when “no man could see his brother.” During the second three day period, however, the Torah reports that “no man could rise from his place.” Rashi explains that the darkness of the second three days was so intense that it literally imprisoned the Egyptians, and that one who was sitting could not stand, while one who was standing could not sit.

Some of the commentators suggest that this intense darkness, which was like imprisonment, was intended to serve as payback, measure-for-measure, for the wicked Egyptians who had imprisoned the innocent Israelites.

Rashi suggests two additional reasons for the intense darkness. Again citing the Midrash, Rashi maintains that there were among the people of Israel of that generation some very wicked individuals, who did not want to leave Egypt.

The Avnei Azel (attributed to Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, rabbi and Torah commentator in pre-war Warsaw, author of the popular anthology, Wellsprings of Torah) explains this in more detail by referring to a Midrash that describes the darkness “as thick as a golden dinar, coin.” He explains that this alludes to those Israelites who were completely obsessed with money and became entirely self-centered and blind to the needs of others.

The Chidushei HaRim (authored by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, 1799-1866, founder of the Ger Chassidic dynasty) expresses a similar thought. He understands the verse (Exodus 10:23) that states that during the darkness, “no man could see his brother,” to be a metaphoric description of blindness induced by egocentricity. When one can not sense his brother’s pain, that, says the Gerrer Rebbe, is true darkness.

These wicked, self-centered Jews, according to the Midrash, died during the three days of darkness. Why did this take place specifically during the plague of darkness? So the Egyptians wouldn’t witness their deaths and say, “Look, the Jews are being smitten as we are.”

Rashi also cites a second interpretation, maintaining that it was during the days of darkness that the Israelites went in to their Egyptian masters’ houses to examine their property. After the tenth plague, when the time came for the Israelites to leave Egypt, the Israelites went to their masters and asked for their vessels. If the Egyptians denied having any, the Israelite would say, “I saw it in your home, and this is where it may be found!” Others attempt to place a more favorable spin on this explanation, by saying that the Jews were now in a position to say to their masters, “We know that you have all these vessels, we saw them during the darkness, and yet we didn’t take them.” So impressed were the Egyptians by the Israelites’ honesty, that they voluntarily gave their precious belongings to the Israelites.

In trying to understand the origin of the light that illuminated Egypt for the Jews during the plague of darkness, some commentators refer to the story of creation of light on the first day of creation. Rashi in Genesis 1:4, cites a Midrash that teaches that since the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day, the original light of the first day of creation was not a physical light, but rather an intense spiritual light. When G-d foresaw that the wicked would be unworthy of enjoying this spiritual light, He set it aside for the righteous in the future.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859, one of the leading Chassidic rabbis in the mid-nineteenth century, known for his pithy comments) says that this is the light that the Children of Israel had in their dwellings during the plague of darkness, when the wicked Egyptians had no light.

It may be argued that the plague of darkness should not be considered alone, but rather as joined with the final plague, death of the first born. Together, they constitute one plague–a plague of physical darkness followed by “ultimate” darkness, death.

Darkness, whether it strikes physically or metaphorically, is a most severe plague. To live in darkness is surely a very painful and lonely existence. May all good people be spared this plague and be enveloped in G-d’s light and beneficence.

May you be blessed.