Commentary for Bo

26 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the final three of the ten plagues that God brings against the Egyptians. While they seem like a minor point when compared to the plagues themselves and their place in the exodus, there are many important things we can learn by studying the nuances of the narratives of the individual plagues and by comparing them to each other. Sometimes Pharaoh is warned before a plague; sometimes he is not. While some of the plagues start simply when God causes some miraculous thing to happen, there are other plagues where God waits for Moses to take a specific, predetermined action before bringing on the plague. Sometimes it is Aaron performing the action instead of Moses, and for the sixth plague, it is both of them together. Some of the plagues affect all of Egypt, while others are specifically stated to not affect Goshen, where the Israelites live.

Of this last category, the ninth plague, darkness, is a little bit different than the others. There were five plagues that did not strike the Israelites or their flocks (wild beasts, cattle disease, hail, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn). The tenth plague targeted the Egyptians as well as any Israelites who did not heed Moses’ instructions in chapter twelve. The fourth and seventh plagues are specifically said to have spared “the land of Goshen, where My people stand/where the Israelites were (Ex. 8:18/9:26),” and the fourth and fifth plague both mention that God is sparing the Israelites’ land and livestock to show that these are not natural occurrences, but rather Divinely directed acts of punishments of the Egyptians.

The ninth plague, however, only states that “but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings (Ex. 10:23).” It does not mention a Divine motive to show that the darkness was not natural phenomenon because three straight days of darkness darker than the average night is clearly not a natural phenomenon. It similarly does not mention Goshen itself being spared, but just the Israelite dwellings, implying that outside in Goshen, the plague still struck. If plague still struck Goshen and there is no mention of God specifically sparing the Israelites to show a differentiation between them and the Egyptians, why were the Israelite dwellings unaffected by the plague?

Many modern commentators have used the description of the darkness so thick that no Egyptian could “stand up from where was (10:23)” to infer that the darkness brought on a depression-induced lethargy in the Egyptians, an idea which fits in well with Midrash Rabbah’s comparison of the darkness in Egypt with Job’s description of his depression as “a land whose light is darkness; all gloom and disarray, whose light is like darkness (Job 10:22).” Other commentators have seized upon the description of a darkness so thick that “no man could see his brother (Ex. 10:23),” to explain the darkness as a physical representation of the Egyptians spiritual state.

One of the curses Moses warns the Israelites that they will suffer if they reject God is that they will “grope around at noon as a blind man gropes in the darkness… and there will be no savior (Deut 28:29).” Rabbi Yosi asks why the words “in the dark” were included, as the amount of light outside does not affect how well a blind man can see. He then answers his own question, explaining that in the daylight others will be able to help the blind man around, but in the darkness they are just as blind as he is and will not be able to help (Megilah 24b).

Towards the end, as Pharaoh begins to realize God’s power, he starts trying to negotiate with Moses. One time he proposes that he will let the Israelite men go, but that the women must stay. Another time he suggests that the adults be let go, but the children remain behind. Both of these offers are quickly rejected. Each and every Israelite is part of the nation, and none of them will have their freedom come at the expense of any of the others. Even their animals must be allowed to leave Egypt with them. The Israelites had suffered through generations of slavery together, and they would all leave together.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were not willing to stick up for each other. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent. Even when the lives of their children hung in the balance, they were concerned only with themselves.

The Talmud defines the time that it is halachicly light enough to see as “when one can recognize the face of a friend (Berachot 9b).” The Israelites have light during the ninth plague because of the support and friendship they showed each other, while the Egyptians sat mired in depression and darkness because none of them were willing to see each other as friends in need, and thus unwilling to be the savior of Deut. 28:29 and help each other through the darkness.

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