Posts Tagged 'Darkness'

The Plague of Dark Money

One of the most memorable elements of the Seder is the recounting of the Ten Plagues. While all of them represent a level of pain or discomfort for the Egyptians, clearly the Death of the First Born seems categorically different. I cannot imagine the horror of the death of a child.  While slavery is horrible, the death of an innocent child seems not only harsh, but also unjust. We respond to the severity of this through the ritual observance of the Fast of the First Born the day before the first Seder commemorating when God passed over our homes untouched by death. This plague overshadows ( pun intended) the penultimate Plague of Darkness. While it is an annoyance, it does not seem like the rest of the Ten Plagues. There in Exodus 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)

Egypt was paralyzed by terrifying fear and enveloped in thick darkness. In retrospect we can imagine their horror awaiting the death of their first-born children, but that was not the case. If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go after the 9th Plague there would not have been a 10th Plague. Rashi interpreted “darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) through following the midrash: “It was doubled and redoubled, and so thick that it was palpable.” This makes senses in that for darkness to be a plague like the rest it has to be tangible and impact the bodies of the Egyptians oppressors.

Thinking about the idea of darkness as tangible gets me thinking about Quantum mechanics. If it is possible that light can behave simultaneously as a particle and as a wave, is the same possible for the absence of light? What does it mean that the darkness was behaving as a thick, doubled, redoubled particle, or the absence of that? This is already way beyond my understanding of physics.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary Torah Temimah, offers us another way of understanding what was meant by this tangible darkness. There we read:

A darkness that can be touched—this indicates that those Egyptians who were standing could not sit down, and those who were sitting could not stand, because they were groping in the dark, as it is written: darkness that can be touched. The midrashim explain that the darkness was as thick as a dinar [a coin], and this is very strange, for what sense is there in giving a tangible dimension to darkness? This requires investigation also because, according to Rashi, throughout the duration of the plague there was only night and no day at all; therefore the order of the created world changed, but this is highly problematic insofar as the Holy One, blessed be God, promised Noah that “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). (Mekhilta Be-Shalah 4)

While it is interesting to explore the subversion of the natural order of things, that is true for all of the Ten Plagues. They are all miracles meant to demonstrates God’s power over Pharaoh. This is not unique to the Plague of Darkness. It is also interesting to ponder the implications of God’s uprooting of God’s promise to Noah, but that I will have to address in a future post. For now I am more interested in this language of the darkness being “thick as a dinar.” Instead of understanding it as a plague of literal darkness, what might it mean that their vision was obscured by money?

When I look around the world I see so many interesting cases where people get blinded by money. In this context, the most obvious parallel to the Plague of Darkness comes from Dark Money in American politics. Dark Money first entered politics with Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when the United States Supreme Court laid out Eight Magic Words that defined the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy. This ruling lifted the requirement for nonprofit organizations (e.g. social welfare, unions, and trade association groups) to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing from where the money came. The New York Times editorial board has opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”(Editorial, Dark Money Helped Win the SenateNew York Times. November 8, 2014). Dark Money’s influence in politics has only grown in the last 5 years. It is painful to see how people are convinced to vote against their self-interest. They are in the dark as to the very process of democracy. This is pernicious in that the electorate has no idea who is pulling the strings.

Money is not only a plague in politics, it is also an issue in philanthropy. For years there has been so much “groping in the dark” with the misbehavior of investors. The heavy demands to raise money for good causes has silenced victims of predatory behavior. The #metoo movement has done a great deal to shed some light here, but we are still not out of the dark.

So what was the Plague of Darkness for the Egyptians? They were slave masters who were blinded by their desire to keep the status quo of having slaves. The release of the Israelite slaves would have meant an upheaval of the Egyptian economy and way of life. As they were getting closer to inevitable emancipation, their blindness to the suffering of the Israelite slaves was itself the Plague of Darkness. As my dear friend Shalom Orzach pointed out, look at the end of the description: “no one could see anyone else”( Exodus 10:23). The cause was not darkness. The darkness was a result of their avarice that blinded them from seeing the mistreatment of others.

We learn a similar lesson from Proverbs. There we read:

Whoever loves money shall not be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Proverbs 5:9)

Avarice is a basic human problem. The love of money makes people blind to the wealth they already have. This blindness to the abundance in our lives can easily spread to how we look at people, power, sex, philanthropy, and politics. If we really could see the infinite potential of every human being in front of us, we could move beyond a culture of scarcity. But if we do not see our responsibility to work for the inalienable rights and basic human dignity of everyone, we are still living amidst a Plague of Darkness.

Image result for candle in darkness

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We pause on Passover to reflect on how we might shine a light on the people, families, companies, organizations, communities, and nations we want to be. We should all be liberated from a plague of scarcity. Freedom is realizing that the blessing of love is free, it does not cost a thing.

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Collapse of Egypt

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.


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