I have come to expect that the best
questions come from children. The fifth grader was completely serious when she asked her question. “When the plague of darkness came, why didn’t the Egyptians simply light some fires or lamps to bring light into their homes?”
Clearly, the darkness of the plague was a different sort than the type that comes with nightfall. The Egyptians already had experienced that variety of darkness. When the locust of the eighth plague covered Egypt, the Torah also describes that the land was darkened from the mass of swarming insects (Ex. 10:15). But the locusts’ darkness seems to have been “regular” darkness — the type you could deal with locally, as my young student suggested, by burning something to bring light to your immediate surroundings.
Clearly the darkness of the penultimate plague was something else. What made the darkness of the ninth plague so different? Why couldn’t the Egyptians simply light some lamps?
Our tradition is equally concerned with this question. Midrash Rabbah (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:2) suggests that this darkness was a return to the primordial darkness before God created light on the first day. There was no longer light, or even the concept of light, in Egypt.
Ramban, on the other hand, suggests it was not an absence of light. Rather, the ninth plague had the appearance of a heavy fog that would extinguish any flame that one attempted to ignite. There are deep teachings behind both of these responses.
The plagues do seem to be God’s way of teaching Pharaoh that Adonai is the only God and Creator. The plagues seem to show, one by one, God’s ability to undo the very creation of the world God had carefully constructed in Genesis 1: beasts, vegetation, light, etc.
Throughout Moses and Pharaoh’s interactions, only the true God can do and undo wonders. As for Ramban’s fog, many scholars and scientists have spent years looking for natural explanations for the plagues. Even Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:8 limits “counter-scientific” acts of God to the 10 things created at the eve of the first Shabbat (and the plagues are not among those listed). God acts, for the most part, within the rules of the natural world.
Our text may also point to something more. The Torah adds the detail that, due to the darkness, “people could not see one another.” Why state the obvious? The Torah may be hinting that this darkness was not a physical darkness that affected the eyes, but a darkness on the soul. People could visually see one another, but they could no longer feel for one another. They became blind to each other’s needs.
Further, only the Egyptians experienced this darkness. The Torah emphasizes that “the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Why add this seemingly superfluous fact? To emphasize a difference. The Egyptians were supposedly free and yet suffered from the thick darkness. The Israelites were not free and did not experience this plague. There may be something about freedom that opens one to emotional darkness, to not caring about each other.
The privilege of freedom comes with responsibility, obligation and accountability. When one is free, one has the ability to make choices, and the duty to consider not only one’s self in those choices, but to be aware of the impact one’s choices and actions will have on others. It is the responsibility of free people to see others, to be aware of others’ needs and to move from the darkness of self-absorption to the lightness of awareness of others.
We live in a free country, and we can sometimes see the dark side of the gift of freedom. How often, living out our own freedoms, are we all too focused on indulging ourselves, and not seeing the pain of others? Our responsibility is to continuously train ourselves to be caring, to be understanding, to truly “see” other human beings — both as themselves and as those created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. Can we do that for those we know closely? For distant people around the globe?
When we all can fully do so, we will have conquered darkness and will understand what it really means to be free.
Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.