D’var Torah For Friday, January 27th, 2022

This week we will be reading from parashat Bo. In it we are told the stories of the three plagues of locusts, darkness and death of the first-born. These last three are some of the most significant of the ten plagues. We wonder, why would darkness be so significant to be listed as the penultimate plague?

First off, there is no negotiation between locusts and darkness. Immediately after the locusts were whisked away by a strong wind, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God then commanded Moses to lift up his arms where “there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness which may be felt.”

According to one commentator Gersonides, the reason for this was because the west wind that drove the locusts away also brought thick, dark clouds to remain over Egypt. Therefore, the sweeping away of the locusts and arrival of the darkness were the result of one action.

The rabbis were also really struck by the Hebrew word ve-yamesh, which indicates the darkness was so thick that it could be touched. According to Genesis Rabbah, this darkness was so dense that no candles or torches could pierce it for three days. Then on the fourth day, the darkness became even more impenetrable to the point that the Egyptians were no longer even able to move. The darkness was so dense it rendered them immobile.

However, the commentary went on to explain that the Israelites, who also were afflicted by the same darkness, were able to see even in its midst because they were accompanied by a burst of light wherever they went.

The plague of darkness is perhaps one of the most relatable. Darkness often represents fear and uncertainty. When faced with darkness, our imaginations often run wild. This is perhaps why the majority of scary movies take place at night. One never knows what the shadows may be hiding. But the lingering question remains, why was the ninth plague darkness?

The Midrash goes on to argue that the reason why the Egyptians remained in this situation was because they had chosen a life of spiritual darkness, whereas the Israelites chose to live by the light to the Torah. The Egyptians were surrounded by an impenetrable darkness because they had built their society up on the suffering of others, whereas the Israelites could see light everywhere even in darkness because they were preparing to build new lives on traditions of righteousness and justice, tzedakah.

In a sense, the darkness here was more than just a physical darkness, but also darkness of the soul. In contrast to this, even during the time of early winter’s dark, we are being reminded by Bo to strive to find the light and to embody the light. We are being reminded to seek justice and pursue it, and to bring light even on the darkest of days.

Tonight, we will also be commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the darkest time of our people’s history. This day was chosen because it was the day that Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945.

We look forward to sharing Shabbat with you both in the dark times and in the light.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Exodus 10:21