This week: A nation continues to be buffeted by a force it cannot understand and experiences a paralyzing darkness of the soul. I refer to Egypt and the last three plagues.
We start with locusts (a kosher food, BTW). The pre-plague meeting of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh has a couple of noteworthy points. First, Pharaoh is explicitly told that a purpose of the plagues is to make him humble himself before the Lord (10:3). Next, Pharaoh’s courtiers bluntly tell him to let the slaves go worship their god; doesn’t he realize Egypt is lost. Finally, Pharaoh relents and asks Moses who all would be going. It is only now, with the 8th plague, that Moses admits everyone will go, even all the flocks. Pharaoh, taken aback, says no way; only the males can go since that’s what was requested (I guess he’s assuming only the men would offer the sacrifices). So, of course, the locusts come and devour what was left from the hail.
The ninth plague, darkness, has been attributed to a long-lasting solar eclipse that did not affect Goshen. Or a sandstorm (khamsin). However, night-like darkness, even for three days, wouldn’t be terrible enough for a ninth plague. No, this is an almost palpable darkness, darker than night (Rashi). Lamps and candles are useless (Nachmanides). It’s like the darkness of the chaos preceding creation; or maybe it’s a taste of hell (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah). The Egyptians do not leave their homes. They are paralyzed, isolated, demoralized. This is national clinical depression. In my experience, what is worst about depression is not the sadness, nor the lack of interest in anything, nor the lack of energy. It’s the total lack of hope. I remember feeling, many years ago, my world gradually turning gray, like clouds covering the sky, and thinking that was just part of growing up. Adult reality = constant gray skies. Once I was effectively treated, I could deal with occasional clouds because I knew there would be blue skies again, in time. The Egyptians felt no such assurance.
After the ninth plague, Pharaoh agrees to let everyone go, as long as the flocks stayed behind. This isn’t good enough, so the Lord sends the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. Before the plague strikes, the Israelites are given instructions on how to prepare for both that first Passover and the Passovers to come. Dramatically, this section in Chapter 12 is like the pause just before a giant wave crashes down on unsuspecting beachgoers. Then the plague strikes, Pharaoh lets the people and their flocks go (and asks for a blessing for himself), and they flee, taking matzah and Egyptian provisions.
A few more laws are given to the Israelites between Egypt and the sea: more on observing Passover, dedicating the firstborn, and tefillin (13:16, “a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes”). These are to enable the Israelites to remember and to teach what had happened. As we’ll see, these are only the first few laws of many to come.
Quotes about Darkness
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
― Anne Frank
“A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.”
― Jean Genet
“There are different kinds of darkness,” Rhys said. I kept my eyes shut. “There is the darkness that frightens, the darkness that soothes, the darkness that is restful.” I pictured each. “There is the darkness of lovers, and the darkness of assassins. It becomes what the bearer wishes it to be, needs it to be. It is not wholly bad or good.”
― Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Mist and Fury
Are You Scared of the Dark?
When I was young, I was scared of the dark.
Now, when I see my electricity bill, I’m scared of the lights.
(#515) Pharaoh in need of counselling?
At Passover, we read the story of Moses and how God brought 9 plagues onto the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. And we read that because the Pharaoh was stubborn and still wouldn’t let the Jews leave Egypt, God had to unleash Plague number 10, despite his previous warning. This was the death of the first-born of every Egyptian family. Only then, after this greatest of terrors, did the Pharaoh release the Jews from slavery and let them leave Egypt to journey to the Promised Land.
But in the face of such convincing evidence that something really bad would happen, why didn’t the Pharaoh release the Jews after the first nine plagues? It took years of research by leading Israeli scholars studying the Dead Sea Scrolls to find the answer. “The Pharaoh was still in deNile”. [Sorry! IGP]
Consequences of the Tenth Plague
After the tenth plague, the slaying of all the Egyptian first born,
Pharaoh told Moses the Jews were free to leave Egypt. So the Jews packed
their carts with their belongings and tried to leave. The problem was,
with all the dead Egyptians, the funeral homes could not handle the
demand. The end result was streets littered with coffins. With the
streets impassable, the Jews couldn’t get there carts out of their
driveways. They complained to Moses. “We can’t get out of Egypt unless you
do something about these blocked streets”. Moses in turn, called out to
G-d. “Lord, please do something about this coffin problem.” Understand
with all the commotion it was hard for G-d to hear what Moses was saying.
He thought Moses said ‘Coughin” and responded by turning all the wine into
cough syrup. And that is why, to this day, we drink Passover wine that
resembles cough syrup.