The Plague that Freed the Hebrews – Jan 3, 2014 – Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz. This week we read Parshat Bo, the recounting of the final plagues that resulted in the Exodus from Egypt.  You remember the plagues, don’t you?  Dam, tzfardeiya, kinim, arov, dever, sh’chin, barad, arbeh, choshech, makkat b’chorot/ blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hailstones, locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn.   So let me ask you a question.  Which plague made the biggest difference for Pharaoh?  (Allow for response).

Now, a harder question:   Which plague made the biggest difference for the Israelites?  (Responses) 

My suggestion is that the plague that made the biggest difference to the Israelites, and perhaps to the Egyptians as well, is the plague that, at first glance, would seem to be the least “plaguey” (a technical term coined by my colleague, Rabbi Michael Simon) of them all….that is, the ninth plague, the plague of darkness.

It’s the least plaguey, because we already live with it…. After all, we spend half our day in the dark—-at night.   We’re used to it; and while we generally have the power to do something about the darkness….nowadays, by flicking on electricity, but even then, a lamp could be kindled, or even a candle, no?  Most of us have it in our power to do something about the darkness.     Some of us are even content to sit in the dark.    

I cannot resist an old joke:  How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?  None, I’ll just sit here in the dark.

But this plague of darkness wasn’t the kind of darkness that we expect when the sun goes down.   It wasn’t meant to bring on physical hardship or devastation, like the previous plagues.   Rather it was meant to impose a spiritual hardship for the Egyptians—-a darkness of the soul.  But in doing so, I believe that it evoked a spiritual breakthrough for our ancestors…And, the plague of darkness, has its lessons for our lives as well.

Let’s examine this plague of darkness more closely.  The Torah text tells us: “Then the Lord said to Moses, Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.”  Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another (ish et-achiv….literally a man could not identify his  own brother in this darkness), and for three days no one could get up from where he was;” and then this narrative is immediately followed by a most puzzling, and perhaps disconcerting line: “but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”   (Ex. 10:22-23)

So what do we know here?  The darkness was more than the absence of light.  It was a “thick” darkness, so thick that one could be standing right next to his relative and not be able to discern him.

What kind of darkness could be so all-pervasive?  When you think about it, the evils of the world are an ever-present darkness, for sure, and the hardships we face in our everyday lives could be perceived as a kind of darkness, as well.  Perhaps, for the first time, the Egyptians, themselves, were faced with the utter evil of their own Pharaoh.  Perhaps, they were immersed in a situation where they realized that they, too, had been enslaved to a despot.  It is human nature to sometimes be blinded by a sense of hopelessness and allow the darkness to envelop us.   Perhaps this is what was happening to the Egyptians.  Suddenly they were enveloped in a spiritual darkness and didn’t have the G-d-given antidote with which to cope.

There’s another possibility here; that is, that the Egyptians were blind to not just their situation, but to the reality of what was happening before their eyes with the plight of the Israelites.  The reality is that when a person does not see others and does not get up to help them, when a person is not sensitive to the difficulties and condition of others, then that is the meaning of “darkness like that in Egypt.”  And according to the rabbis, this is the worst kind of darkness, the kind which prevents us from connecting with and helping others.

That is why this plague was so severe.  It teaches us that our indifference, our inability to see each other, to reach out and establish a bond or a connection to each other, to help each other, to understand each other’s pain or suffering, is actually the worst kind of darkness.

And that was what the Egyptians did.  They were in the dark they were blinded by darkness.  They couldn’t see the pain of the Hebrews.  They didn’t care.

And we know that people see or don’t see what they want to.  Only Moses saw the burning bush, although there were other shepherds out that day.   And what about those who lived near Auschwitz and claimed they had no idea that there was a crematorium?  They lived in the dark, a self- imposed darkness.

G-d plunged the Egyptians into a thick all-enveloping darkness.  The Or HaMeir, a great Chassidic maggid, added to this interpretation by  saying that what was meant by “the Egyptians did not see their  brothers” is that they didn’t “take to heart how much they could learn from the goodness of the people around them.  On the contrary, they kept finding fault and lack in others, glorifying their own deeds…”  One of the most precious teachings of Chassidism is that one raises his or herself through spiritual friendship, seeking to live in a community of like-minded companions and learning from their ways.  But the Egyptians not only didn’t walk forward from themselves (Lech l’cha) but could not even rise from where they were seated.

Whether it was physical darkness brought about by the absence of light, or the darkness of pervasive evil, or the emotional darkness of self-imposed isolation from those around them…..this plague brought with it a spiritual, emotional, physical darkness that utterly isolated those affected by it.

But, remember the last line?  “All the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings?”  Was that just an “in-your-face” to the plight of the Egyptians or was it something else?

Some sages say that it was an inner light that elevated them.  Although they had been enduring slavery for generations, they lived with light because they connected with others, they helped one another, and they didn’t allow their hardship to isolate themselves from one another.

Some sages said that they went even farther.  Although used to helping one another within the Israelite community, during the plague of darkness they actually brought food to their Egyptian neighbors.  Imagine, slaves sustaining their masters.

And I say that it was this plague of darkness in which the Israelites no longer saw themselves enslaved, but realized that the Egyptians themselves had been in a state of servitude to an evil Pharaoh.  Seeing this, they were finally able to imagine their own physical freedom….and, thereby, enabled themselves to actually believe that they could attain freedom.  (Which is why I contend that this ninth plague, the plague of Darkness,  was possibly the plague that most influenced the Israelites…)

There are many lessons in this passage.  We must be aware and alert—able to see where others might be enshrouded in darkness.  We  must not only be open to the possibilities of the miracles that are ever-present, we must also be tuned into the darkness that inevitably seeks to creep into our lives and not allow it to overwhelm us, consume us, isolate us.   We must turn to one another, to our wholly, holy holy community of G-d for help and support.   And, unlike the Jewish mother who preferred to sit like a martyr in darkness, we must summon our inner light and strength to imagine a better world.  That is, in fact, our mission statement.   As Jews, we have a mission to be an “Or LaGoyim”….a light unto the nations.

May we strive towards the day when all people will enjoy light in their dwellings.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon….Amein.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

3 January 2014