August 23, 2019 |

Heart of Darkness

Although the plagues inflicted by God against the cruel but hapless Egyptians inflicted great material damage (and great death in the massacre of the first-born), their primary impact was psychological and psycho-theological. Consider the final three plagues:


What binds these three together? (take a moment to think about it)

All three of them happened in darkness. Regarding the locusts, the Torah says:
"And it covered the face of the whole land, and it darkened the land (from the root "choshech", darkness) and they ate all grass of the land and all the fruit of the trees that had been left over from the hail and there was left no vegetation among tree or field-grass in the whole land of Egypt" (Exodus 10:15)
Regarding the plague of Choshech, the entire plague was a darkness so stifling that one could not move or function at all. Finally, the plague of first-born happens at midnight on the night of the exodus, terror in the darkest part of the night-time.

Darkness is naturally terrifying, for our greatest fear is that which we cannot see, but only imagine. In the night time prayer of Ma'ariv, we add an additional blessing (called "hashkiveinu") to ask God for protection in the night, a blessing not needed in the clear and optimistic light of morning.

However, darkness was especially terrifying for the Egyptians, who were sun-worshippers. In the great worship of the sun that permeated their polytheistic pantheon, the blotting out of the sun was tantamount to a defeat of their god. They were paralyzed by the inaccessibility of their God and terrified by the possibility that He or They had been vanquished by the Hebrew people's superior deity.

The seventh plague - the burning hail and lightning called barad - does not have an overt reference to darkness. It seems likely that the sky was darkened with clouds if there was lightning and hail, but the Torah does not refer to it explicitly. But the Torah does connect it explicitly to the plague of the locusts. Note the underlined section in the above quote. The locusts (eighth plague) were only able to eat what the hail (seventh plague) had left over. Regarding the hail, the Torah says:
"and the flax and the barley were struck. For the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not struck, for they were not yet ripe. (Exodus 9:31-32)
These extremely curious verses are inserted into the middle of the description of the plague of hail to let us know that - even though God could have destroyed all the Egyptian crops - some produce was left over, perhaps in anticipation of the plague of locusts.

Rabbi Chaim Brovender asks why on earth God would do this. He didn't really need to engineer a plague of locusts to eat the crops that the hail could demolish! Hence, there must be something different about the two plagues.

There are actually a few differences. One, as we mentioned, the darkness of the swarm of locusts as opposed to hail, which does not mention darkness. Second, that the hail endangered humans as well as produce, whereas the toothless locusts only affected plant life. But it is the third distinction which may be the most significant.

In the plague of hail, the Torah specifically mentions that "Only in the land of Goshen, where were the children of Israel, there was no hail." (Ex. 9:26) But nowhere in the plague of locusts does it say that the land of Goshen was spared. Rabbi Brovender suggests that the locusts did in fact eat up all the Jewish produce as well, the first plague to have affected the Jews. Why? To cut their ties with any material possessions they may have had in Egypt and to prepare them for the Exodus. If there was no food in Egypt, it would help the Jews psychologically be ready to leave.

Now, there is a Rabbinic tradition that the wicked among the children of Israel were killed by God during the days of darkness. It was done in darkness so the Egyptians would not have the privilege to see Jews being punished.

This, however, suggests that the plague of locusts sent another message to the Jews: your protection from the plagues is over. You WERE protected from all the plagues, but now it is time to stand on your own. Similarly, in the plague of darkness, some Jews -the bad ones - were also affected. Finally, in the plague of the first-born, it was required that every Israelite paint their doorway with blood from the Paschal lamb so that the "destroyer" will not enter their homes. Clearly, the Jews had to act to protect themselves. In short, the order of the plagues is as follows:

Hail last solely Egyptian plague
Locusts affected Egyptians and Jewish crops
Darkness affected Egyptians, while Jews have their own plague
First-Born affected Egyptians and Jews equally

EXCEPT that the Jews were given the cure to the plague of the first-born, while the Egyptians were not. Even the 11th hour panic-stricken command of Par'oh to send out the Jews did not prevent the Egyptians from dying. Only the prescription of blood on the doorposts wards off the awful death of that Passover night.

What does all this mean? The children of Israel, much like ourselves, had to learn to trust in God, even down to their blood. Even down to laying their lives on the line. Even down to following God and his prophet into the howling wilderness of Sinai with the Egyptian army hot in pursuit. As the plagues finish their work of psychological devastation on the Egyptians, they wean the children of Israel away from a child-like reliance on God and into a trusting active relationship with the Almighty. Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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