Wednesday, 21 Jan 2015

Written by Adam Frankenberg

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm towards the sky that there may be darkness upon the Land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched’ Moses held out his arm towards the sky and a thick darkness descended upon the Land of Egypt for three days.  People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:20-3).

One of the most powerful and abiding Jewish rituals is the Passover Seder, and the reciting of the Haggadah which recounts the events of the exodus, and of the ten plagues, which befell the Egyptians: Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. As a child the ritual of dipping my finger into my glass of wine and spilling a drop for each of the ten plagues made a deep impression on me.  It is a potent ritual and one that has a remarkable power to move.  In this week’s parashah, Parashat Bo, we read about the last three of the ten plagues; locusts, darkness and the death of the first born. 

While the earlier plagues affected both the Children of Israel and the Egyptians the latter plagues only impacted on Egyptians. In the case of the darkness the verse itself makes it clear that while for three days and three nights the Egyptians suffered in a deep darkness, the Children of Israel had light in their homes. The start of the process whereby the Israelites would go from a ragtag group of slaves to a unified people had begun although it was far from complete, yet they are already different and being treated differently from the Egyptians. While there is near total darkness elsewhere in the land of Egypt in the houses of the Israelites there is light. Indeed Rashbam, (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir), the grandson of Rashi, goes even further and suggests that the Israelites enjoyed light even if they lived in the houses of the Egyptians.

I find it striking that even at this stage, after so many plagues and what must have been a terrifying period of three days of perpetual darkness Pharaoh is still prepared to negotiate with Moses and Aaron, rather than simply giving into their demands in unconditional surrender.  So surprising is it in fact that we are repeatedly informed of the reason why he did not simply give into the requests of Moses and Aaron to free the Israelites, despite the insistent urging of his advisors and courtiers. Pharaoh would not, or perhaps could not, change his mind and let the people go, because God, had ‘strengthened his heart’. This in the face of these ‘natural’ phenomena, which must have been becoming increasingly terrifying.

According to the commentators there is some dispute about the nature of this darkness, which afflicted Egypt. Ibn Ezra understands it as being a darkness that is so deep that it can be touched from the root (Mem, Vav, Shin,) whereas Rashbam (and others) understand it as meaning a darkness which grows increasingly deep from the root (Aleph, Mem, shin).  In either case, and indeed according to the Biblical text itself, this was no ordinary darkness. Rather, it was a profoundly deep darkness, one so powerful that people could not see one another nor could they move from their particular place. In psychological terms it would be easy to understand the response of Pharaoh, his court and indeed the whole of Egypt as one of depression or even the response of freezing as a result of trauma.

It would take the final plague to make Pharaoh not so much release the Israelites but rather forcibly eject them from Egypt.  Even then, however, he changed his mind and chased after them only to be drowned in the Red Sea.

But I am certain that God did not want the Egyptians to suffer, indeed in the Midrash when the angels wanted to join in with the Israelites and sing praise to God after the Crossing of the Red Sea, God rebuked them and said, ‘My Children are drowning in the Sea and you want to sing songs of Praise?!’
Just as the classical midrash portrays God as not rejoicing at the destruction of Egypt and indeed of rebuking the angelic host for so doing, I am sure that God does not wish our destruction or difficulties either. We are all unique and each one of us is a child of God, and each of us has our own particular task or tasks to perform in the world. This may not be, however, the one we either think or imagine it might to be.  Sometimes these messages about the meaning of our lives might come to us only through periods of darkness and difficulty. 

The darkness that afflicted the Egyptians is also described as preventing people from seeing one and other; isolation can be a powerful force in preventing people from taking the necessary actions they need to.  And actions are almost always necessary, indeed, even in the course of the Ten Plagues, rather than happening spontaneously as it were, Moses and Aaron were required to undertake some form of action first, only then would the particular plague happen.

Modern communication technologies have simultaneously and paradoxically made it both easier to ‘see’ one another, and at the same time be isolated from them.  But they can be also be  a powerful tool for changing the world for the better and an opportunity to lift some of the isolation and darkness from the world.

Adam Frankenberg

LBC Rabbinic Student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.