This week we read of the final plagues brought upon Egypt as we prepare ourselves for the Exodus. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened but he still refuses. As things evolve, we read in Exodus [10:21] “Then God said to Moses, Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched”. Commentators have for centuries played with this idea of darkness. It is such a vivid image, a darkness that can be touched! It is a darkness that blots out everything.
I was thinking about how this idea of such a total darkness can relate to our own stage of life, a stage that ever so slowly begins to remind us of the “darkness” of our own mortality. The commentator Sforno reminds us that this type of darkness was of a deeper nature.The modern commentator Aviva Zornberg, in her book on Exodus, speaks to this passage as a “depiction of a dehumanized rigidity, a ‘hardness’, that mimics the rigidity of Pharaoh’s heart throughout the narrative.” (“The Particulars of Rapture”. p. 166). In his comment on this passage Rabbi Abraham Twerski channels other commentators who note that such a darkness is when we are unable to see the plight of the poor or needy. He adds, regarding the Hebrew word “v’yamash” (the darkness that was what one could touch) that this type of darkness “was not simply a passive absence of light, but an active darkness; i.e a fog which eclipsed any source of light.” (“Living Each Week”. p.128)
This is the type of “darkness” which we fear. It is a darkness of the soul, a darkness which blots out reason and more importantly, hope.And, this can really be a plague. We may know some people who deal with the challenges of their own aging by withdrawing from life. It is as if a sense of darkness overtakes them, their sense of hope, of life, fades. Often the situations that bring this on are all too real: a death, a debilitaing illness, too many losses. This darkness then takes over; removing hope, challenging reason and removing the possibility that a person would be able to “see” any light at all.
This is something all of us must guard against, because, in a real sense, all of us are vulnerable to such a state. This darkess of the spirit can be palpable, real and, can seem as if one can reach out and touch it. This is a plague in no uncertain terms. Your presence, support, caring and love may be a way to counter-act this plague. Yet, it is all too real and this darkness is all to present in our lives, in so many different ways. The Torah reminds us, however, that its presence blots out reason and hope; and for that reality alone, we must guard against its spread—no matter what the venue!
Rabbi Richard F Address