Can you imagine waking up one morning, seeing the following emergency alert on your cell phone in all caps: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL?” Well that’s what happened last Shabbos in Hawaii. This push alert that warned of a ballistic missile heading straight for Hawaii—presumably from North Korea—sent residents into a full-blown panic. Facebook was filled stories of people calling and texting their loved ones goodbye. It seems someone pushed the wrong button while testing the system!
I can’t imagine the fear I would feel thinking that the sky would soon be lit up so brightly that it would be hard to see and that after that, everything might go totally black. Imagine the despair that must have gone through people’s hearts and minds as they wondered if this wasn’t the end—the end of their life, the end of a loved one’s life, or perhaps, even the end of the world. Imagine the darkness they felt.
People panicked, drove like maniacs without considering other people who were also out on the road trying to figure out where to go to find safety and light. I know that other than trying to get to somewhere safe I would probably feel immobilized. But where could it be safe when confronted with a nuclear missile? It reminds me of the emergency drills from my elementary school of hiding under my desk in the event of a nuclear missile—as if that would protect me!
While many people are upset with the alarm being sent out in error, I’m sure glad that it was in error. I hope and pray that no such errors occur again and that it should never be the real thing.
This week all of Atlanta felt immobilized as a surprising snow storm Tuesday night gave most of Atlanta a couple of unplanned days at home waiting for the snow to melt. No, the snow wasn’t total darkness, but just being immobilized gave us a small sense of the plague of darkness in today’s Torah reading.
Toray’s Torah reading tells us about the last 3 of the 10 plagues. What do they all have in common? Darkness. Let me explain. What was the 8th plague? Locusts. The Torah (Ex. 10:15) tells us that during the plague of locusts, vatechshach haaretz (that the land was darkened). Anyone who has ever experienced a swarm of locusts will tell you that one could not see to go anywhere. You have to step on the locusts just to move. The locusts ruin farmers’ crops—which, of course lead to their dealing with the darkness of losing their livelihood.
The 9th plague is just that—the plague of darkness. Some read this very literally and take it to mean that things became so dark that no one could see a thing, but others say that the darkness that is written about had to do with the fact that one could not see another. In other words, no one could see the needs of anyone else and no one gave a “you know what” about anyone but themselves.
And finally comes plague #10, the killing of the 1st-born—not just of the cattle and other animals—which the Egyptians might have been able to deal with—but of the 1st-born of their own children and, this plague came about in the darkness of night.
So we have the last 3 plagues: locusts, darkness and the slaying of the 1st-born. All of them caused profound darkness.
Returning to the plague of darkness, it was unlike the other 9 plagues. With each of the other plagues, Gd used some instrument to wreak destruction upon the Egyptians—blood, frogs, lice, locusts, hail, etc. With the 9th plague, however, Gd elected to remove something, namely light.
In scientific terms, darkness is defined as the absence of light. Darkness is primordial; it’s cold and chaotic. It’s not something that can be touched or felt or tasted or heard. Of all our senses, only our eyes perceive darkness, and only then for what it is not.
Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the intensity of the darkness is particularly insightful. Commenting on the length of the plague he notes: The Egyptians [lacking sunlight] did not know that the darkness lasted for 3 days, but we know that it was 3 days long because the Jews had light in their neighborhood. It is simply impossible to judge time without either a clock or light. The Jews in Goshen could measure these 3 days only because they had light. The Egyptians, however, deprived of light, were also unable to perceive time. This lack of awareness of time was not merely a collateral consequence of the plague of darkness. It was an integral part of the plague itself.
Time is what began when Gd uttered His 1st command (Gen. 1:3): Y’hi or (Let there be light). When Gd removed the light from the view of Egypt, He caused them to experience the utter aloneness of the dark pre-universe, when time was immeasurable and therefore meaningless.
Ibn Ezra tells us that he knows this total darkness from his personal experiences at sea: Out at sea a darkness (heavy fog) can descend, such that man cannot distinguish between day and night. This phenomenon can last for 5 days, as I have personally experienced many times. According to this, the darkness of Egypt was not merely the absence of light but rather something tangible, something that could be experienced by the sense of touch—like the mist of sea-fog.
Turning back to the 3-day duration of the plague of darkness, it is striking that this was the precise amount of time that Moses had asked Pharaoh for to worship Hashem in the desert in his ruse to free his people. It was to be 3 days of Divine Light. As punishment for refusing this reasonable request, Pharaoh and his people were forced to endure 3 days of utter darkness, horrible, lonely sense-less, timeless, darkness. The mida k’neged mida (measure for measure) punishment inflicted by Gd on the Egyptians jumps off the text!
Gd sent the Egyptians back to the moment before creation, when there was no light, or time or universe to experience. For a brief few days—that must have felt like an eternity—the Egyptians tasted life devoid of the blessings of Gd’s creation. They experienced the profound and unnatural loneliness of being separated from their senses with which the world is perceived, from their loved ones, from time and space, and from anything remotely Divine.
It’s interesting that when Jews talk about someone dying we speak about them heading—not into the darkness—but toward the light. And how fascinating that when a loved one dies, what’s the 1st thing we do when we are complete Shiva? We go out into the light in the morning and take a walk around the corner as a way of slowly starting to come back from our mourning and face a new world—a world we never faced before, a world without our loved one.
The Torah teaches that the earth was void and filled with darkness then Gd created light. As children of Gd we have the ability to add to that light. Perhaps that’s why we light Shabbos candles—to bring more holy light into the world as Gd did after the 6 days of creation with Shabbat. Perhaps that’s why we kindle a Shiva candle after the funeral and a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death—to bring the light of the blessing of the joyous memories of our loved one. Perhaps that’s why we light the Chanukah Menorah, to proclaim that in the midst of the darkest of times—and Chanukah comes during the darkest or shortest days of the year—Gd is there with us with His light.
And then there is the Havdalah candle that we light to separate Shabbos from the rest of the week. Perhaps this is to remind us that, while we will all have to confront profound darkness in our lives, if we remember how connected, how tied together we are, that bit of Gd within each us, can shine ever brighter.
May our study of the plague of darkness remind us that, even though we know there will be times of profound darkness in our lives—as the clichés have it—the sun will come out tomorrow, and, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Amen!