“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went and came, and brought no day,
And [people] forgot their passions in the dread
Of this desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:…”
Lord Byron describes well what must have been in the hearts of the Egyptians when the 9th plague of darkness befell them, as described in this week’s Torah portion Bo.
This was not an ordinary darkness. So dense it was that a person couldn’t see the hand in front of his face and if he/she moved would trip over the darkness.
The Midrash says that this darkness (choshech) wasn’t of the natural world. It wasn’t as a consequence of a solar eclipse or a moonless night. While it oppressed the Egyptians, the sun and universe operated normally everywhere else. It was as if each Egyptian was imprisoned in a black box of isolation, requisite punishment for their cruelty. This darkness catapulted the Egyptians back to a time before the creation when “darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2)
From whence did it come? And what did it mean? In Psalms (105:28) it is said; Shalach choshech va-yach’shich – “God sent darkness and it became dark.” In our portion God instructs Moses; N’tei yad’cha al ha-shamayim vi-hi choshech… – “Hold your arm over the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21) This darkness reflected the debased spiritual and moral condition of the Egyptians.
The Psalms tell us something else as well; Yashet choshech sitro s’vi-vo-tav sukato – “He makes darkness be His screen round about Him,” (18:12) suggesting that the spiritual light that abides at the very core of existence is always hidden and could never enter the Egyptian heart. That same light, however, shone in all the Israelite dwellings. In its pure form this light was so powerful that no one could see it and live. It is said that every angel and human being are able to receive only a very small measure of this Divine glow, each according to our spiritual capacity and development.
The Kabbalist Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (14th century Spain) taught that God shut down every Egyptian’s antenna so that none could receive these Godly light-waves and therefore not interfere with the Source of its transmission. But the Israelite antennae were open.
What does all this mean for us?
It is a certainty that each of us will suffer a broken heart once or more in our lives. Some of us bear chronic biochemical imbalances that need medical attention. All of us need love and support when we or our loved ones become ill, divorce, suffer the death of dear ones, the loss of jobs and income. Every loss casts a darkness upon the human soul.
Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter (19th century Poland) taught that the worst darkness of all is that blindness in which one person will not “see another,” and will refuse to look upon another’s misery and lend a hand. Such a person is incapable of “rising from his/her place,” that is, of growing in heart and soul.
Rabbi Yochanan taught that every eye has an area of white and black. We might think that the human being sees out of the white part. But no! We see out of the black part, which means when we’re in the dark we’re capable of seeing what’s in the light, but when we’re in the light we can’t see what’s in the dark. (Yalkut Shimoni 378).
In other words, there is always hope out of darkness, and there is always light when we think there is none.
In Egypt, wherever Jews went light went with them because the light was in them. That is what it means to be a Jew – to live in the light, to be a light to others and to hope.