Darkness on a Sunny Day:
A Bo’ ShulDrasha
I'd like to talk to you
When God created heaven and earth,
at the very beginning of the תורה,
there was Darkness
on the face of the deep.
And when God was about to tell אברהם
that his children would be
“enslaved in a land not their own”
for 400 years,
אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָֿה גְֿדֹֿלָה
Fear and great Darkness
fell upon our first patriarch.
as the predicted oppression
and promised redemption
were winding up to their climax,
in our פרשה today,
swarms of locusts
like voracious clouds
blocked out the sky
and darkened the Egyptian landscape —
as if the eighth plague
were merely a hungry rehearsal
for the ninth.
פרעה reneged on his desperate deal
and refused to release the Israelites.
God instructed משה
to stretch his hand
out towards the heavens,
would descend on Egypt.
נְטֵה יָדְֿךָֿ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם
וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְֿ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
That last phrase —
וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ —
has inspired speculation
for thousands of years.
The more naturalistic commentators
such as שמואל דוד לוצאטו
in 19th century Italy
to come from a root meaning ‘touch’
and explained that
the Egyptians had to grope their way
through the utter darkness
that no candle could counteract.
reading the verb the same way, ‘touch’
say that the plague of darkness
was so thick
that it was tangible.
Some of the great medieval commentators,
אבן־עזרא and ספורנו,
compare normal darkness —
the neutral absence of light —
to חשך מצרים,
which was a physical phenomenon;
not simply the lack of light, but some thing else.
Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston,
in “Moses, Man of the Mountain”,
her novelization of the life of משה
based on African-American traditions,
described חשך as a
“...living crawling darkness
that had a life of its own.
It had body like the wind
and it heaved in motion
like the sea.”
It's easy to see
where this image of מכת חשך
as supernaturally-pea-soup-thick, lighthouse-fog darkness
came from —
in the very next verse after וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ
that not only
did none of the Egyptians see each other
for the three days of the plague,
but that they also
would not —
or could not —
rise from their places.
They were unable to move.
As the מדרש puts it,
those who were sitting could not stand,
and those who were standing could not sit.
לְכָֿל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹֿתָֿם
all of the Israelites had light in their dwellings.
In the words of Sam Reinstein,
the Egyptians lost their freedom of movement.
בני ישראל had independent mobility,
while the Egyptians were confined like slaves.
The Egyptians groped blindly in the darkness
while the Israelites could see clearly.
Two late 19th early 20th century commentators,
ר' ברוך הלוי עפשטיין and ר' יעקב צבי מעקלענבורג
have a completely different take
on the plague of darkness.
It was not a thick fog
that fell from the sky
or a smothering paralysis
that afflicted פרעה and his people —
it was a thin skin
that blinded each one of them
According to these two מפרשים,
חשך was a very personal plague.
At the Passover Seder
we quote Psalm 78,
and describe how God afflicted Egypt with
עֶבְֿרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה
מִשְׁלַחַתֿ מַלְאֲכֵֿי רָעִים
wrath, rage and trouble
a delegation of messengers of misfortune.
ר' מעקלענבורג theorizes
that it was on the basis of this verse
that חכמת שלמה
the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ —
one of the lost Jewish writings
of the Second Temple Period —
describes the plague of darkness
unlike any other interpretation so far,
as anything but empty
of light or sound:
“...they were scattered under a dark veil of forgetfulness,
being horribly astonished,
and troubled with [strange] apparitions.”
“...noises [as of waters] falling down sounded about them,
and sad visions appeared unto them
with heavy countenances.”
“...there appeared unto them
a fire kindled of itself, very dreadful:
for being much terrified,
they thought the things which they saw
to be worse than the sight they saw not.”
Smothering, physical darkness.
Out of all these options,
what is this חשך?
How is it an appropriate punishment?
And how does it relate
to the irrational stubbornness
of the king of Egypt?
פרעה is trapped.
His country is battered
This God of the Hebrews
is too powerful for him.
All משה is officially asking for
is a few days' vacation
so that בני ישראל
can celebrate a religious festival
in the wilderness.
But פרעה can't see the hand
in front of his face;
and he can't see tomorrow, either.
His world ran on slave power.
Asking him to release the Israelites
would be like asking us
to give up all electricity.
Who would build his storehouses?
Who would build his monuments?
Who would be the scapegoat,
the eternal ‘fifth column’
to blame for all of Egypt's misfortunes?
פרעה is blind to the value of freedom,
and unwilling to consider a new day.
He sees no future without slaves,
and so he sees nothing.
He is paralyzed by fear
unable to rise from his seat
because he is unable to take a stand.
He alternatively cowers in fear
before the power of God
and then hardens his own heart,
breaking all promises.
The smothering darkness
that rolls over him
manifests his own indecision.
And the “delegation of messengers of misfortune” —
that filled the darkness
with monstrous apparitions
and horrid whispers?
We all fill the dark with mystery.
We imagine danger lurking
past the edge of every streetlight.
פרעה was afraid
of the unknown.
He was willing
to doom his country
to plague after plague
because he couldn't imagine
life without slavery.
His people could starve,
they could suffer and die,
as long as פרעה
didn't have to face a new and different tomorrow.
His world was being ripped apart around him,
and yet he was too scared to let go.
The תורה tells us
that while everything was dark for the Egyptians,
בני ישראל had light.
They saw the world around them,
and recognized that it was wrong.
They heard God's promise to their ancestors,
and knew that it was true.
They saw the road out of Egypt —
and although they didn't know
where it would take them,
or what would happen on the way,
they were willing to trust משה
and trust God
and imagine a future
in a Promised Land
better than the present.
It's a sunny day,
and the winter is half over.
ט"ו בשבט is just around the corner.
Soon it will be Spring,
and פסח will come,
and we'll be telling this story
all over again
and at home
with מצה and מרור.
פרעה was right about one thing —
no matter how bright the present is,
the future is uncertain
and therefore dark.
But with trust in God
and in each other,
we can meet that future
with open eyes,
and there will be light
for all of Israel
wherever we are.