The final three plagues that occur in this week’s sidra, appear on first reading to be difficult to categorise until we see a thread that connects them – that of darkness itself. The swarm of locusts cut out any light from the sun, forming a thick cloud of living destruction. The bible tells us “they cover the eye of the land so that no one can see it”. The three days of darkness of the ninth plague meant that the Egyptians could not see each other or to move around at all – “they could not get up from where they were”. And the last terrible plague, that of the killing of all the first-born, took place at midnight.
What is the nature of darkness that links these events?
The ninth plague of darkness lasted for three days, imprisoning the Egyptians in their homes and completely isolated from each other. The Egyptians had refused to allow the Israelites three days of freedom to journey into the wilderness to worship God (Exodus 5:3) were now being given a sort of measure for measure punishment. The darkness is so thick as to be tangible, a suffocating total absence of possibility; no connection, no sense of self or other, can be experienced within it.
Darkness seems to be a metaphor for slavery, for whatever is the opposite of freedom to be. It is the metaphor for isolation, for fear and complete helplessness. The first thing that God does at the Creation is to bring about Light, separating it from the primordial swirling atmosphere. Without light nothing else would be possible.
The Midrash, commenting on the first verse of psalm 22, which reads: “To the chief musician: upon the rising of the morning star, a psalm of David: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Why are You] so far from saving me, from the words of my roar?”
tells us that it is darkest immediately before the dawn:
“At night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before dawn! After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before dawn. And in that hour the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness God brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world.” (Midrash Tehillim)
It goes on to play with the words ‘shachar’ meaning ‘dawn’, and ‘shachor’ meaning ‘blackness’. The worst state to be in, spiritually and emotionally, is in the place of deepest darkness, yet it is also the place from which God responds to us, and from which we can begin again.
All of us have times when we feel the lack of freedom to be, when we are isolated from others or anxious or hopeless or depressed. We all understand the words of the psalm, when we feel forsaken and drowned out by the roaring in our minds. This is never a good feeling nor one we want to stay in for any length of time, but it is part of the human experience and something we can use on our journey to understand ourselves and our lives.
It took the darkness – the three different kinds of it – to bring Pharaoh to an understanding of the power of God. It takes the darkness in our own lives to really help us understand how good so much of our lives actually is.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his essay “To Hold With Open Arms” wrote:
“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.
It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings.
In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. How precious- how careless. This has been the refrain sounding in me ever since.”
Darkness and light. We need each of them to understand the other. And with an awareness of both, we are able to reach out towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.