Darkness and Illumination*

Reading: Exodus 10:21-23

21 And the Lord said unto Moses: Stretch out thy hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt

22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the Land of Egypt three days.

23 They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

One of the striking features about the Egyptian plagues is that--if we were to examine them individually, and outside of the context of the story of the Exodus--almost all of them could be explained as straightforward natural processes. Several passages in Rabbi Hertz's commentary make reference to natural and climatic features peculiar to Egypt and to the Nile, beginning with the first of the plagues:

"Between June and August [he writes], the Nile usually turns to a dull red, owing to the presence of vegetable matter. Generally, after this time, the slime of the river breeds a vast number of frogs, and the air is filled with swarms of tormenting insects..."

In keeping with this approach, the miraculous character of the plagues is not to be sought in any objective properties, but in the manner in which they were regarded by their contemporaries. Each plague was preceded by an explicit threat by Moses, and all ten occurred within the space of a single catastrophic year--though I admit that, from my comfortable distance from those events, a year seems like quite a leisurely pace. I had always assumed that they took place in rapid-fire sequence within the two weeks that it takes to read about them in synagogue, or even within the five hours of the De Mille film.

To be sure, the rabbinic imagination has been allowed a free reign in enhancing the plagues with supernatural flourishes. Giant frogs and the like make for entertaining story-telling, but they seem to miss the Torah's original point, that the Almighty demonstrated a remarkable degree of restraint in not hurling down lightning-bolts or demonic armies, but insisted on employing the same prosaic natural forces that are at work in normal times and seasons.

Perhaps we can find some confirmation of this thesis in the well-known passage in Pirkei Avot that lists various items that God fashioned on the first Friday at twilight. As Maimonides and other Jewish thinkers interpreted that passage, in formulating this list the sages were trying to maintain their confidence in the dependability of natural lawse by arguing that even when those laws seemed to be suspended in order to produce miracles, the miracles had in truth been programmed into the original natural structure at the time of the Creation.

At any rate, the list includes all of the most dazzling instances of Biblical pyrotechnics: the chasm in the earth that opened to swallow up Korach's congregation; the mouth of Balaam's ass, the manna, and others. Some even went so far as to include the first pair of pliers, without which it would have been impossible to manufacture the second pair! Nevertheless, conspicuous in their absence are any of the plagues: no bloody river, no frogs (giant or otherwise) or locusts are included in that list. The only item we find there that is related to the plagues is Moses' staff.

And this seems to be the key to the message: None of the plagues were miraculous in themselves. It was only through their connection to Moses' mission that their religious significance could be appreciated.

Now the theory that we have been describing works better for some plagues than for others. Frogs, lice, wild animals and locusts are undoubtedly natural phenomena. However I have always had trouble applying the theory to the plague of darkness as it is portrayed in today's reading: At Moses' signal, uninterrupted blackness prevails over Egypt for three days, and yet somehow the Children of Israel were unaffected. The Biblical narrative even adds that there was something about this darkness that prevented people from moving from their places, as though they were crushed under a heavy burden.

On the one hand, I am willing to treat with my customary skepticism the midrashic interpretations that this darkness took the form of a solid, lava-like substance (of the sort that reputedly hovers over the Los Angeles area) that solidified around the unfortunate Egyptians and literally prevented them from moving their limbs. Even on this point, not all the commentators are in agreement. The Hebrew phrase "Va-yamesh hoshekh," that most translations read as "darkness that could be felt" is rendered by several Jewish interpreters simply as "extended darkness."

On the other hand, I am not quite ready to buy the various naturalistic explanations cited by Rabbi Hertz; such as when he refers to the solar eclipse of March 13 1335 B.C.E.-- or when he compares it with another eclipse on January 24 1925, whose shadow ceased abruptly when it got to 96th street in New York (apparently there were some neighbourhoods in New York that even eclipses did not dare enter). Even less am I persuaded that the phenomenon being described was the oppressive air of a Middle Eastern "khamsin." Other commentators have suggested that the plague might have been a sandstorm. Several British scholars have even proposed that the Egyptians were enveloped in a pea-soup-fog (though for the life of me I cannot imagine what led them to such an interpretation).

None of these explanations has ever seemed completely satisfying to me.

Recently I happened upon a midrashic interpretation that might succeed in--pardon the pun--shedding light on the question, in the form of a rather farfetched parable.

An old chronicle tells of a land far to the east [or at least, east of Manitoba] whose citizens enjoyed a life of ease made possible my a wealth of wondrous inventions. They no longer had to cut wood for kindling, but built houses that warmed themselves automatically. These magical houses could even measure the exact amount of warmth that was required. No oil or wicks were needed to provide light, because illumination could be provided by the touch of a button. People did not need to visit each other's houses in order to converse, because in this magical land it was possible to speak in one house and have one's voice miraculously conveyed to other dwellings. Even money was no longer needed, because the citizens of this fantasy-land possessed enchanted charms that knew the precise number of coins that were held in far-off vaults.

So confident were the inhabitants of that land in the power of their magic that they forgot how to chop wood, and they discarded all their oil-lamps and candles. The clinking of coins ceased to be heard.

And then one day all this changed suddenly. A fierce storm encased the land with ice, overpowering the magic. And the people were caught unawares, unable to produce light or heat, unable even to purchase food and clothing, since they had long since stopped carrying money. So unexpected was all this that their lives came to a standstill. They huddled together for warmth waiting for the king's soldiers to dig them out of the ice.

I wonder if this was not the kind of situation that befell the Egyptians when confronted by the plague of darkness, whether in the guise of an eclipse, a sandstorm, fog or heat-wave, leaving them totally paralyzed.

This difference in their responses reflects a fundamental contrast between pagan religions and the faith of Israel. For the pagan, religion is concerned only with those phenomena that are eternal and unchanging, especially with the recurring cycles of nature, whose forces are personified as deities. For those gods, the domains of human ethics and history are of no real concern. Just as nature is unchanging, the human situation is a permanent one. Each individual departs this life as she or he entered it, no better and no worse, since life is a constant cycle. The Egyptians believed that all aspects of life were like the unfailing course of the Nile that could be depended upon to bring life-giving waters year after year. Faced with any suspension of what was familiar to them, their belief system collapsed and they were totally unable to react. "The Egyptians could not rise from their places for three days."

Not so for the Children of Israel. Their God is no mere force of nature. The Holy One blessed be he is above all natural laws, and yet takes a profound interest in every aspect of the human situation. Humans are capable of bettering themselves and the world. When confronted with extraordinary circumstances, the Israelites did not see this as a threat to their faith. On the contrary, they welcomed it as a step towards their approaching liberation. "And the children of Israel had light in their dwellings."

This contrast between the Israelite response and that of the Egyptians marked an important stage in their spiritual maturity. As a Torah community, they could recognize that there is more to reality than what is evident on the surface. The spiritually sensitive personality is receptive to unexpected situations, recognizing them as manifestations of God's infinite powers and as doorways to an encounter with the divine. What stupified the pagans as an incomprehensible failure of everything that they had come to rely on, was welcomed by the faithful as the hand of God, or--to use the terminology of the Kabbalah--as an infinity of hidden holy sparks waiting to be released.

It would be splendid if we could state with conviction that the spiritual openness of the ancient Hebrews remains part of our religious personality as Jews. Too often we find that the role of Judaism in our lives is precisely the opposite, to provide a kind of comfortable old easy-chair that protects us from the complexities of the outside world. This is particularly noticable in the world of Orthodoxy, where our commitment to tradition--rather than furnishing us with the resources to respond creatively to new challenges, or to discern the sublimity of God's creation-- often numbs us to to anything that does not fit into our customary categories. Sad to say, our institutional leadership has been slow in recognizing the radical challenges posed by the monumental historical developments of recent history, such as the Holocaust and the achievement of Jewish statehood. Many of our leaders and scholars continue to define their attitudes and policies according to categories formulated in ancient or medieval times, as if nothing has changed.

Even in our own beloved shul, how many of us can honestly say that our participation in services and classes has helped to enhance our spiritual receptiveness or sensitivity? How do we react when someone has the chutzpah to introduce (Lord forbid!) a new melody into the davening? While I would be the last person to speak lightly of historical traditions, nevertheless it sometimes seems that we are missing the point of it all.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead of slipping into the same spiritual rut as the Egyptians of old, we could learn to emulate the perceptiveness and enlightenment demonstrated by our ancestors.

In the words of the blessing that we recited earlier this morning: "May the Almighty cause a new light to enlighten Zion, so that we may all soon partake of its radiance."


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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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*Lay sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, January 31 1998