2006"God said to Moses: Stretch out your hand over the heavens, and let there be darkness over the land of Egypt; they will feel darkness!
"Moses stretched out his hand over the heavens, and there was gloomy darkness throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days, a man could not see his brother, and a man could not arise from his spot, for three days.
"But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their settlements."
It is about this time of year that the lengthening of the daylight hours begins to be apparent. The color and character of the winter sunlight changes as the earth's northern hemisphere is increasingly bathed in light. Each day's period of sunlight is about two minutes longer than the day before, and now about six weeks out from the winter solstice, this change becomes quite noticeable. It is a time of the year that serves to remind us of how lucky we are to inhabit a nice planet with a good atmosphere just the right distance from a giant yellow ball of gas engaged in continuous nuclear fusion.
Light is our most important natural resource, and it is not surprising that ancient people worshiped its ultimate source, the sun. Throughout the ages, light has played a central role in humanity's myths and symbols and is a powerful metaphor for intelligence, discernment and inspiration.
Imagine for a moment what would it be like to go without even a winter sun for a few days? In this week's Torah portion, our old friends the Egyptians get to experience the loss of light first hand. The plagues that God uses to persuade the Egyptians of the error of their ways increase in intensity and pain inflicted until the last, the death of the first born. Yet the penultimate plague, darkness, on the face of it doesn't sound so bad. So it was dark, so what? We all know what it's like when the electricity goes out. Sure it's inconvenient, but a plague?
But this was more than just a couple of days without power and all the food defrosting in the freezer. What the Egyptians experienced was complete, total, even tangible darkness, a powerful symbol of all that was missing from their hearts, minds and souls.
What exactly was the nature of this "darkness?" Rashi (1040-1105 CE) says that this darkness was darker than dark and couldn't be dispelled the way normal darkness can. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797 CE) added that darkness is not merely the absence of light but "darkness is, in fact, an independent creation that is pushed away by light, and that's the way The Holy One, Blessed is He, made nature. Therefore, here (in this plague), God changed nature, because it says, 'a darkness which can be felt,' which means that the darkness 'pushed' away the light...."
I believe that the Egyptians experienced three kinds of darkness.
The first was literal light that enables one to see. Light is the first thing that God creates at the beginning of creation. In doing so God created the ability to discern, to differentiate. Light is the prerequisite for all that follows. It is even created before the sun itself. It is light that illuminates our sense of sight. Without light, we are blind even if the eyes are functional. It is thought that the first human language may have been a kind of sign language and therefore dependent on sight. Think about how important "body" language, visual communication, still is. The Egyptian suffered blindness to emphasize their inability to distinguish between right and wrong.
The second light the Egyptians lost was an emotional light that fills a person the way a cottage in a Thomas Kinkade painting effuses with luminescence. It says in the text that for three days no one could get up from where he or she was. It was a darkness that could be felt in the soul. It was as if a dense fog of depression descended on everyone making it impossible for them to function.
People who are severely depressed often describe it as a darkness that descends and makes it impossible to do anything. It is darkness so thick that it feels like it can be touched. People in this state lose the desire to eat, work and be with other people. Often it becomes difficult to even get out of bed. When the depression lifts, sufferers describe it as a lifting of the darkness. The Egyptians suffered a loss of the will to live because of their oppression of the Israelites. It was as if a light went out in their souls.
And finally what they experienced was a kind of spiritual darkness. The previous eight plagues must have seriously undermined the Egyptian's confidence in their magicians, their gods and their god-king pharaoh's ability to protect them. A kind of darkness of the spirit must have gripped them as they realized that those in whom they had placed confidence and faith were as fragile as they were. To the extent that they were able to perceive the light of the Israelite God, it was a shattering light, which left them blinded. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in "Walden," "The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us."
The Israelites, on the other hand, had light. They had light of discernment that allowed them to see one another and to distinguish between the way things were and the way they could be. They had an emotional light that illuminated within them a love for life. And most importantly, they perceived a greater spiritual light. They did not blindly place confidence in their leaders, who were also flawed. Nor could they rely on physical might, of which they had little. Rather, they found courage and inspiration from a foundation of faith based on a perception of a brilliance far greater than the light of the sun.
Thoreau concluded "Walden" by noting, "Such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn… Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
It is the Israelites' ability to envision a greater star than the sun that made it possible for them to "see" amidst the darkness, that made possible their freedom and prepared them to receive the revelation at Sinai.
They understood that the sun was but a morning star.
Prepared by Dennis Kirschbaum, Hillel's associate vice president for adminstration
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Bo at MyJewishLearning.com.