In a couple of weeks I will have the opportunity to travel to Vienna with Amy and two of my sons for a week-long visit. We chose Vienna for a variety of reasons after strongly considering Amsterdam, where we could have visited with Peter Drucker and Suzanne Vine, former Oheb members who now live there. But while both Peter and I would have enjoyed seeing each other, he discouraged me from coming in the winter because the days are so short. Apparently, at this time of the year it’s still dark outside well past the time that the sun would have already risen here in the New York area, and it sets in the sky earlier than it does here as well.
If you live in a region where the days are short and the nights are long, you probably get used to the absence of natural light. Perhaps that’s what the Egyptians felt when they experienced the ninth plague- darkness. We read in this week’s parasha:
Then the Lord 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.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)
Commentators have written about the nature of the darkness that descended on Egypt. Some understood it not as ordinary darkness, which is merely the absence of light, but as a phenomenon in and of itself. Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) said that the plague of darkness wrote that “the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light.”
Other commentaries understood the darkness that fell on Egypt not as a physical phenomenon but as a spiritual one. The darkness was indicative of a callousness and indifference that set in between people. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943, Poland) wrote:
The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled — no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of others.
Friedman quotes the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) in suggesting that such callousness was fueled by greed and a frantic chase after money. The phrase “golden denar” implies earning money not merely for one’s needs or to be comfortable, but to chase after amounts of money far in excess of what one needs (like $1.5 billion dollars!). That was the darkness that fell on Egypt—an indifference to the essential humanity of the other and seeing the people around us as obstacles to achieving our own goals.
The story of the plague of darkness reminds us to be vigilant about seeing and valuing the humanity in the people around us. Whether it’s a matter of racial diversity, sexual preference, differences in religious belief and practice, or differences in political philosophy, all issues that have afflicted society especially in the year gone by, we can’t afford to allow darkness overtake us, making us blind to the basic humanity that unites us. When that happens, we truly have a plague on our hands.