Darkness Deciphered

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Bo relates the last three plagues that Hashem brought upon the Egyptians. One of the most enigmatic of all the plagues was the plague of darkness. The Torah tells us that the darkness "will be tangible/ vayamesh. As properly understood, the plague lasted a total of six days, three days of a thick darkness and three additional days during which the darkness was so "tangible" that no one could move from whatever position he was in. This was indeed a strange plague whose purpose needs to be examined.

Our first question is why was this plague necessary? What purpose, if any, did the darkness serve? Further, what was the nature of this darkness that made it different from our standard definition of darkness as the absence of light?

Let us deal with our first question first. Rashi tells us that the darkness served two purposes. First, there were among the Bnei Yisroel those who were so assimilated that they did not want and did not warrant being redeemed. During the plague of darkness, Hashem killed these people while the Egyptians would not see them die and being buried.  Otherwise the Egyptians would mockingly assert that the Israelites were suffering from the plagues just as they themselves were. Second, Hashem had promised our ancestor Avraham that his descendents would leave Egypt with great riches. The darkness gave the Israelites the opportunity to uncover the hidden places where the Egyptians kept their gold and silver vessels. Then, when the Israelites would ask to borrow these items, the Egyptians could not deny that they had them, for the Israelites would tell them exactly where they were. Further, knowing where the wealth was and not taking them when the Egyptians were incapacitated, created a greater esteem for Bnei Yisroel in the eyes of the Egyptians.

Perhaps the greater question is our latter question, exactly what constituted this darkness? After all, in writing about Bnei Yisroel, the Torah does not say they had no darkness; rather the Torah states, "For all of Bnei Yisroel there was light bemoshvoteyhem/in their dwellings." These are the questions Rabbi Schlesinger raises in Areset Sefateynu. He further notes that the verb yomush, in other contexts,  often means "remove". How can we reconcile the idea of removing darkness with the tangibility of this darkness? And the final part of this question, what is the source of this darkness?

Two of our great Tanaim pose contradictory theories as to the origin of this darkness.  Rabbi Yehudah claims that this darkness originated in the highest realms of heaven, in absolute purity. On the other hand, Rav Nechemiah claims that the darkness emanated from the regions of Gehinom. According to Rabbi Yehudah, this darkness was parallel to the state of nothingness before creation when only God existed. But since the wicked are unworthy of witnessing such purity, Rab Nechemiah claims, this darkness must be a part of death, punishment and destruction. Will we eventually be able to reconcile these two divergent views?

Rabbi Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi asks one additional question in Birkat Mordechai. How can darkness be so physically oppressive as to prevent movement and prevent one from sitting or standing?

Let us begin our multifaceted discussion with the writings of Rav Gedaliah Schorr, the Ohr Gedalyahu. Rabbi Schorr observes that the ten plagues run parallel to the ten utterances of creation in reverse order. The purpose of the plagues, as noted multiple times in Hashem's messages through Moshe, was to know that Hashem exists within the world and runs the world, albeit in concealment. The tenth plague, when Hashem personally (so to speak) comes down to smite the firstborn Egyptians, parallels "In the beginning" itself when all that existed was Hashem's presence, without a world of concealment. Certainly Hashem could have created the world with one utterance, just as He could have redeemed Israel with one plague. But Hashem wanted mankind to choose to recognize Hashem in each element of creation rather than through one massive unconcealed truth. In this way Hashem could create merits for the righteous to earn rewards. Similarly, Hashem could have redeemed Bnei Yisroel with one plague, but the message would then be lost, as each plague revealed another facet of Hashem's immanence on earth. Elokhim proved His active involvement with hateva/nature by manipulating each aspect of nature. Both E-l-o-(k)h-i-m and ha-t-e-v-a equal 86.

If we now go to the ninth plague, darkness, we see that this plague parallels the utterance, "Let there be light." When Hashem created light, He also created its opposite, darkness. He can create a system where the two can exist simultaneously, irrespective of their contradictory nature, even though we, as humans, cannot grasp this dual existence. If you believed in God, you lived in light; if you did not believe in God, you lived in darkness. What you see in the plagues, adds Rabbi Wolbe citing the Saba of Slabodka, is individual Divine providence. The light shone for everyone, yet each individual perceived it differently.

How can darkness and light parallel each other? Rabbi Moshe Shapiro in Mima'amakim throws light on the subject by going back to creation. Hashem did indeed see that the light was good. This was the light of absolute clarity in which man could see all the secrets of the hidden world. But Hashem also understood that such light could be abused by evil people. So he took that great light and concealed it behind layers of darkness. The Egyptians lived in a world of sorcery, a world that denied the true light.

With this in mind, one can understand that a contradiction between light and darkness may not really exist. Mima'amakim cites the Malbim in explaining that the plague was not darkness or an absence of light, but was rather that original, completely spiritual bright light that Egyptian eyes could not tolerate and found blinding. In contrast, the Jews found that with this light they could see with clarity not only all things spiritual, but also all physical things hidden in the world. The Jews did not go snooping around the homes of the Egyptians, but with this special "x-ray vision", they saw the treasures hidden in the homes of their Egyptian neighbors. While the Israelites gained clarity with this light, the Egyptians were blinded by its intensity as one is blinded by looking directly at the sun. As Rabbi Schlesinger quoting the Kedushas Levi explains, Vayomosh choshech/ the darkness was palpable includes within its meaning the movement, the removal of the veils and shields [‘darkness’] that hid the original light. Because the Israelites kept the mitzvoth their fathers had handed down by tradition, they had the ability to see the light b'moshvoteyhem/in their dwelling places, in the places they did teshuvah.

Rabbi Pincus uses this idea to give us some modern day advice. The way for us to subdue our enemies today is no different from the way it was then. Through the light of Torah and mitzvoth we can move forward and paralyze them.

As everything in the universe, light exists on two planes, writes the Ner Uziel. It exists both in the upper spiritual world and in the lower, physical realm. What the Torah refers to as light is not the daytime light, but is actually a manifestation of the spiritual essence known as truth. While in the spiritual world light equals truth, in our world, light appears as electromagnetic radiation visible to the human eye. (There is much, though not total, truth in the saying, "Seeing is believing.")Truth itself was concealed during the process of creation. The Torah states that when the plague of darkness came, the Israelites had light in their dwelling places instead of saying that they did not suffer from the darkness. It was this supernal light that enabled the Israelites to see even what the Egyptians themselves were unaware they had, for their ancestors had hidden away their treasures when people came to buy grain during the great famine of the Joseph era.

But if light is truth and clarity, darkness is confusion and a distorted view of reality, continues the Ner Uziel. It was this confusion, inner doubt and turmoil that paralyzed the Egyptians and prevented them from moving forward. In contrast, the Jews experienced heightened awareness. Seeing the light is not only literal, but also metaphorical, for one who "can't see the light" has no understanding, notes Rabbi Ezrachi. We take movement for granted, but if there's a break in communication between the brain's message and the appropriate limb, no movement takes place. The darkness of the Egyptians was intellectual. They had lost all understanding and couldn't even function in the world, whereas the Jews went in the light of Hashem's countenance.

Rabbi Leibel Eiger writes that Bnei Yisroel were not worthy of having this light, but Hashem wanted to arouse in them a desire for closeness with Him and thereby merit redemption. Those who saw the light and used it to find Hakodosh Boruch Hu were indeed saved. But those who experienced this light and truth and nevertheless rejected it did not merit redemption. It was these Jews who died during the plague of darkness writes Rabbi Avigdor Parnes in Lev Tahor.

This was the darkness that preceded the dawn, and such will be the darkness of the Satan that we are challenged to rise above, writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter. Hashem is calling to us from the darkness of this world to separate ourselves from the dark technologies that enslave us in the modern era.

We must open our eyes, for we are also submerged in darkness, and Hashem is waiting for us, exhorts us Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein. Do we observe the natural world Hashem created? Are we growing as nature grows with Hashem's command? Are we yearning for redemption today? Do we have our bags packed and a plan in place so that we can leave the moment Moshiach arrives?  What was it that allowed Bnei Yisroel to be redeemed then? It was nothing more than an intense desire for that redemption, a desire we need today as well, write Rabbi Pincus. The time before the great light of redemption will be revealed is the darkest time.

We can prepare for the redemption, for Shabbat is the oasis of redemption of all time. It is Shabbat that is the symbol of separation of darkness and light, the light that appears regularly bemoshv(b)oteychem/in their dwellings, in their Shabat, writes Rabbi Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. When we live our Shabbat in honesty and truth, it becomes the light that allows us to see with clarity for the entire week. Each week, through the light of Shabbat, we merit a mini redemption from the darkness that surrounds us. May we soon merit the light of full redemption.