Bo: How You Can Help End the Ninth Plague

You probably remember that death of the first-born was the tenth and last of the increasingly awful Biblical plagues.  It was the one that finally broke Pharaoh’s iron will and obstinacy.   

But which was the ninth, nearly-as-awful, plague? An icy fire-storm?  Boils? Locusts? Frogs?  No, it was none of these. It was a taste of, a foreshadowing of, death.  It was … darkness.

But the ninth plague was not any “ordinary” darkness, i.e., the absence of light.   Exodus 10:21 states:

And the Lord said to Moses: 'Stretch out your hand over the heavens, and let there be darkness over the land of Egypt; and [v’yamaysh choshech].'

Y’vamaysh choshech is usually translated as “darkness they will feel,” “darkness they will touch,” or even “darkness through which they will grope.” These translations derive from other Biblical uses of the root of Y’vamaysh [Psalm 115:7, Deut. 28:29, Exod. 13:22] that carry those meanings. 

What does it mean to say that they could feel or touch the darkness?   The Torah continues:

Moses stretched out his hand over the heavens, and there was gloomy darkness throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days, a man could not see his brother, and a man could not arise from his spot, for three days.  But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their settlements.  [Ex. 10:22-23] 

From the passage “a man could not see his brother, and a man could not arise from his spot,” we learn why this was such a horrifying plague.

According to a Chasidic tradition, the worst of all darknesses is when people are unable to “see” their neighbors, that is, to note their distress and to help them.  Or, as nineteenth-century Hungarian rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (aka “Ketav Sofer”) explained, when a man does not see others or want to see them, there is darkness in the world. 

This homiletic interpretation of the verse is also supported by a surprising source: Onkelos.  According to Jewish tradition, Onkelos was a nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus.  Titus destroyed the Second Temple and brought the Jewish slaves and holy objects from Jerusalem to Rome.  Onkelos converted to Judaism (!) and translated the Torah.  

Rashi tells us that, according to Onkelos, “y’vamaysh” comes from the root word that means “to move away.”  Hence, Onkelos’s translation: “darkness upon the land of Egypt after the darkness of night has departed,” i.e. a darkness that began at dawn. (I learned this from Michael Carasik’s The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot).  How fascinating that Rashi, Judaism’s preeminent teacher and textual commentator, would cite, as an authority, the nephew of the Roman general who destroyed the Second Temple!!!!  What an amazing example of the maxim in Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers), “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”  [Mishnah 4:1]. 

The story of darkness as nearly the most serious and debilitating plague, just short of killing, teaches us two things.  

First, that we bring light to the world – to those who are so alone and afraid that they can feel or touch the darkness -- when we create light for them by caring and acting for them.  And that we do the opposite -- create darkness -- when we “move away” from those in need.  

Second, that since the plague of darkness was the last before the plague of death, our failure to bring light into the world by helping those in “darkness” approaches the severity of violating the Commandment: “Don’t stand idly the blood of your neighbor; I am G-d.” [Leviticus 19:16.] 

By the way, modern Hebrew has an interesting phrase for “pitch-dark.”  It is “mamash choshech mitzraiyim,” meaning “really dark [as in] Egypt.”  This is, of course, a reference to the ninth biblical plague.  I find this to be a wonderful remember that the everyday language of our people, even as spoken by modern “secular” Israelis, incorporates our Biblical tradition.  

May you not feel or touch darkness this Shabbat, and rather than “moving away” from or “standing idly by” someone who does, may you bring the light of Shabbat and companionship to them and thus help lift the plague that burdens them.  

Shabbat shalom.

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