Darkness – They Could Not See Their Neighbors
-Rabbi Ronen Lubitz-
It is appropriate and necessary to shed light on the plague of darkness. Its place in the order of the plagues as next to last is indicative of its having been a very harsh plague. This is surprising since, as opposed to the rest of the plagues, the plague of darkness did not cause anyone any physical harm. Moreover, this plague did not cause any damage to infrastructure (such as the plague of blood), did not harm any animals (murrain, dever), did not destroy any crops (locusts), did not cause sickness (boils), and was not even itchy or bothersome (lice). What, then, was so terrible about the darkness?
It appears that precisely this question was what brought to Sages to identify certain tasks in connection with the preparation for the exodus from Egypt that were to be completed during the time of darkness. One Rabbi explained that the darkness provided cover for the death and burial of all of the Jews who did not merit redemption from Egypt. Another explanation is that the darkness afforded the Jews the opportunity to discover where their Egyptian neighbors hid their gold and silver vessels so that they could not deny their existence when the Jews came to ask to borrow them in anticipation of their exodus from Egypt.
I would like to suggest another explanation for the purpose and meaning of the plague of darkness. This explanation is rooted it the fact that darkness creates loneliness. Man is a social creature. “Diplomatic by nature,” in the words of Maimonides, and in those of our Sages: “Either a partner to study with or death.” A stirring example of this appears in a passage in the Talmud that tells of Rabbi Yochanan, who, after hearing of the death of Reish Lakish, his friend and student, was not able to continue to exist in solitude and ultimately lost his mind and passed away.
The plague of darkness in Egypt created complete social quarantine and isolated every man from his neighbor. The darkness forced the Egyptians into immobility and stripped them of their freedom, just as they had done to the Jews, and caused each and every one of them to contemplate his own conduct and past deeds. According to the Sages, a two phased process took place during the darkness: during the first three days “they did not see each other,” while during the subsequent three days there was “thick darkness,” the darkness intensified and “and no one rose from his place,” so that, in Rashi’s words, “if he was sitting, he was unable to stand, and if he was standing, he was unable to sit.”
The rabbis of the mussar movement (Jewish ethics) explained the connection between the two phases and added that when a person does not see his neighbor, no one is capable of rising from his place. In other words, when a person cannot see anyone else, no person or project can get off the ground. A healthy society requires that each of its members pay attention to those around them, to take note of their problems and troubles, and only then can people rise and cause their society to be vigorous and uplifted.
Therefore, I suggest that the Egyptians’ suffering during the darkness was of a similar nature to that which they had imposed on the Jews. In the initial phase they sinned by “not seeing each other,” as they did not take heed of the suffering and pain that the slavery caused the Jews, and as an extension they reached the subsequent state of “no one rose from his place,” resulting in the downfall of Egyptian society in its entirety.
The Torah emphasizes that “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings,” a fact that was not highlighted with regard to the other plagues. Moreover, the Torah does not state that “for all the children of Israel did not experience darkness,” as it did point out with respect to other plagues, but rather that they had light. I propose that this statement comes to specifically highlight the fact that the Jews did see each other and that their awareness of each other produced the light around them.
In a robust and healthy society each person must be aware of the other, of his needs and hardships. The Halacha mandates that the appropriate time to say the Shema prayer is from such time as a person can recognize his close friend from a distance of four amot (approximately six feet). It is not possible to recognize Hashem and accept the yoke of Heaven without being able to see one another. On the basis of this understanding the ARI (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, mid-sixteenth century Safed) taught his disciples that prior to fulfilling the mitzvah of tefillin (phylacteries) each person must accept upon himself the mitzvah of “love thy neighbor as thyself,” in order that it precede the mitzvah of “love Hashem your god.”
Nowadays, people find it difficult to see each other, not because of darkness, but because of an abundance of light. Electric light allows people to shut themselves up in their homes, to remain with themselves and to see only themselves. Others can be seen via computer screens, televisions and phones. The communication conducted by means of electronic gadgets and appliances dulls our direct line of sight to other members of society and prevents us from taking note of them.
Furthermore, in today’s day and age it is not the darkness and depravation that constitute the root of the danger of not taking note of the other, but rather the ubiquitous abundance. In the Sages description of the darkness in Egypt they note that it had a physical quality that could be touched and measured. The Sages ponder the question of its actual thickness and they conclude that it was as thick as a gold dinar (coin). The rabbis of the mussar movement relate that the Sages purposely used such colorful imagery to describe the physicality of the darkness in order to teach us what type of darkness can befall a society whose goal becomes the race to richness in gold, silver and financial interests. When people set their sights on money, they lose sight of each other. The light of the computer and the abundance of means of communication results in people not leaving their homes and congregating together, and the overall abundance causes people not to notice those who are missing.
The mitzvoth of the Pesach sacrifice and holiday, which directly follow the plague of darkness, place a heavy emphasis on the commandment to eat the Pesach sacrifice in a group. This is a point that is not made with regard to any other sacrifice. It seems that the Torah wishes to emphasize the issue of togetherness in the celebration of the redemption of Israel, and to cause people to rise up and take note of each other. The mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice requires each and every Jew to exit his solitude and to become aware of his neighbors and of society at large, thus creating a reality in which no Jew is left alone and in the dark.
Rabbi Ronen Lubitz, a Tzohar rabbi, serves as the rabbi of Nir Etzion and as a lecturer in the department of education at Haifa University.