Of the ten plagues that devastated the land of Egypt, the plague of darkness appears to be the most benign. Certainly, being trapped in the dark is frightening (sensory deprivation is a recognized form of torture), but is it as devastating as rivers of blood, ravaging beasts or painful boils?

While the plague described in this week’s Torah portion is simply known as darkness, the Torah actually refers to it as “thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22). In normal darkness, a person’s eyes slowly adjust to the darkness around them. This did not happen in Egypt. The Bible, in Exodus 10:21, calls it a “darkness that may be felt,” which, according to tradition, means that the darkness was so thick that it was physically tangible. The Midrash states: “[During the plague of darkness], a person who sat could not stand up, and the person who stood up could not sit down…” (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

This thick darkness served several purposes. The first had to do with the spiritual state of some of the Israelites. During the next and final plague, the death of the firstborn, any Israelite who did not mark their door (meaning: who did not choose God) suffered the same fate as the Egyptians. There were, however, some Israelites who were such vile transgressors that they did not even merit this choice. During the plague of darkness, these Israelites perished and were buried. Because these burials were obscured by the darkness, the Egyptians could not absolve themselves of responsibility for the plagues by pointing out that Israelites had also died.

The exceptional darkness did not affect the Israelites, as it says: “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23). The significance of this is explained in the Midrash, which notes that during the darkness, the Jews inspected the homes of the Egyptians to know where their valuables were hidden so that, before leaving Egypt, they could claim the valuables as remuneration for the many terrible years of slavery (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

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