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Dvar Torah by Stephen Belsky

A few years ago, one of my students pointed out that the aima chashekha gedola – the fear and great darkness that fell upon Avraham right before God revealed that his children would be “enslaved in a land not their own” – may be a foreshadowing (pun intended) of the Plague of Darkness.  Generations later, as the predicted oppression and promised redemption were approaching their climax, God instructed Moshe to stretch out his hand towards the heavens, so that very darkness would descend on Egypt...V'yamesh  choshekh..

But what was this Darkness?

Understanding the verb v'yamesh as coming from a root meaning ‘touch,’ Shadal explained that the Egyptians had to grope their way through a darkness that no candle could counteract.

Seforno and Ibn Ezra,  reading the same verb,  say that the plague was so thick that it was tangible, an image captured poetically by  Zora Neale Hurston in her “Moses, Man of the Mountain,”  who described choshekh as a “living crawling darkness that had a life of its own.  It had body like the wind and it heaved in motion like the sea.”  This view takes advantage of the very next verse, which tells us that not only could the Egyptians not see each other for the three days   of the plague, but that they would not – or could not – ‘rise from their places’.

We find a completely different take on choshekh  in the Torah Temimah and Haketav Vehaqabalah, which claim that choshekh was neither a thick fog nor a smothering paralysis that covered Egypt, but a thin skin or cataract that blinded Pharaoh and each of his subjects, individually.

And perhaps the most fantastical image of the Plague of Darkness is that of  "Wisdom of Solomon"  (one of the Jewish writings of Bayit Sheini times), which describes choshekh as anything but empty of light or sound – instead, it was full of strange apparitions, images of faces and flame, and dreadful noise.  The overall effect was terrifying, such that the Egyptians  “thought the things which they saw [were] worse than the sight they saw not.”

The absence of light.  Smothering paralysis.  Personal blindness.  Hallucinations.

Out of all of  these options, what is this choshekh?  How is it an appropriate punishment?  And how does it relate to the irrational stubbornness of the King of Egypt?

Pharaoh can't see the hand in front of his face because he can't see tomorrow.  His world ran on slave power – asking him to release the Israelites would be   like asking us to give up not just our cell phones, for instance, but all electricity.  Who would be his workforce?  Who would be his scapegoat?  Pharaoh sees    no future without slaves, and so he sees nothing.  And he's paralyzed by uncertainty,  unable to rise from his seat because he is unable even to take a stand.   Pharaoh  alternatively cowers in fear before the power of God, and then hardens his heart, breaking all promises.  And even when everyone around him recognized what had to be done,  Pharaoh himself still refused to see.  So what about the monstrous apparitions and horrid whispers?  We all fill the dark with mystery, imagining danger lurking past the edge of every streetlight.  Pharaoh was afraid of the unknown.

Pharaoh was willing to doom his country because he couldn't imagine life without slavery, or face a new and different tomorrow.  His world was being ripped apart around him, and yet he was too scared to let go.

Our villain was right about one thing, though – no matter how bright the present is,  the future is uncertain, and therefore dark.  But with faith,  imagination, and open eyes,  we can illuminate the darkness and,  like our ancestors in Egypt,  follow a shining path towards Freedom,  Torah,  and the Promised Land.