In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the penultimate plague of darkness. There we read:
Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. ( Exodus 10: 21-23)
What was the purpose of three days of darkness? One of Rashi’s explanations of this darkness is:
The Israelites searched [the Egyptians’ dwellings during the darkness] and saw their [own] belongings. When they were leaving [Egypt] and asked [for some of their things], and they [the Egyptians] said, “We have nothing,” he [the Israelite] would say to him, “I saw it in your house, and it is in such and such a place.” (Rashi on Exodus 10:22)
So while darkness brings to light the economic retribution, there were other ways that God could have disclosed the location of the Israelite property. God could have just told them where. Is there another meaning of this darkness beyond jump starting the first Claims Conference?
Being in the depth of winter makes it easier to relate to the plague of darkness. This experience of winter reminds me of a wonderful Gemara in Avoda Zara. There we learn:
Our Rabbis taught: When Adam HaRishon– the primordial man-saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps [this is happening] because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. (Avoda Zara 8a)
The world was not ending because he had eaten from the עֵץ הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge. His hypothesis made sense. Adam was told that, “you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shalt surely die.” ( Genesis 2: 17) Despite having eaten of its fruit he did not die right away. Maybe his life and life itself was slowly coming to an end. Instead he was experiencing the winter shortening of days for the first time. Adam had a fantastic hypothesis which was proven false after the winter equinox. It is impossible to read this Gemara outside of a primordial origin of the Chanukkah story, but might this have any relevance to understanding the plague of darkness in Egypt?
After the first exodus from Egypt Avraham (who was also leaving with a great amount of wealth) had a falling out with Lot. In pursuit of peace Avraham decided that they needed to split up and he gave Lot a choice of which property Lot would take. There we read:
And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar. (Genesis 13:10)
Besides the opulence and amount of water from the river, in what ways was Egypt like the “Garden of the Lord”? This I do not know. But if the land of Egypt was like the Garden of Eden how might we understand the meaning of this plague of darkness? Well it is interesting to reflect on the human beings after Adam ate of the עֵץ הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge. There is no going back. The crises in Egypt was brought about by “new king over Egypt, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע-who knew not Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8) For Adam the sin of eating caused knowing and for Pharaoh the sin was trying to “un-know” the gift of Yosef.
Adam finds out he will not die on that day. The impact of the sin is less of a punishment and more of a consequence. The darkness is not his death or the end of the world, but it does spell the end of his time in the “Garden of the the Lord”. In light of this it seems that the plagues are Moshe’s attempt to remind Pharoah of what he “knows” to be true. The Egyptians have enslaved and decimated the descendents of Yosef, their savior. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond writes, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he is unable to listen to Moshe. The darkness of the 9th plague foreshadows the decline of Egyptian society. Diamond writes:
Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.
The plague of darkness is one of Pharaoh’s last chances to succeed. Will he test his hypothesis and reconsider he approach like Adam? Instead of thinking of the long-term plans for his society and their place in the larger world, Pharaoh pursues his Israelite slaves and plunges his society into the sea. The darkness brings to light Pharaoh’s resolve to maintain his hypothesis despite any evidence. We all need to reflect on how we are often blinded by the things we “know” to be true.