The Darkness

The power of the final plagues.

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Hence, it is no accident that darkness unites the final three plagues that God hurls against Egypt. The locusts darken the face of the earth, if not the sky itself (10:5, 15). The darkness that follows is so thick that one could touch it (10:21-22). And the killing of the firstborn occurs in the depth of the night. Darkness forebodes devastation, even for the descendants of Jacob.

While the plague of darkness did no more than intimidate the Egyptians, underscoring the impotence of their supreme deity, it wreaked havoc on the Israelites. Rashi stresses that God used the three days of pitch black to eliminate all those Israelites who did not want to leave Egypt. True, Goshen where the Israelites resided was bathed in sunlight. But the darkness over the rest of Egypt concealed from the Egyptians all knowledge of their fate, thus denying the Egyptians any comfort (Rashi on 10:22).

Nor should we think the losses were light. On the contrary,Rashi tells us later that only one out of five Israelites left Egypt. The rest were not deemed worthy of redemption and perished unbeknown to their taskmasters (Rashi on 13:18).

Association with the Firstborn

Night is also associated with the slaying of the firstborn. Moses issues two commands to his people to avert tragedy: to cover the linteland doorposts with the blood of the lamb and to stay indoors. In a memorable formulation, the midrash posits the reason for the second: "Once permission has been granted to the destroyer to terrorize, it no longer distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked" (Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael, Horowitz-Rabin ed., p. 38). The Torah substitutes the word"destroyer" twice for God's name in reference to the 10th plague(12:13, 23), as if to suggest that when God's fury is fully unleashed all moral distinctions collapse. Destruction cuts a broad swath. In Egypt God struck when humans felt most vulnerable, in the middle of the night. Hence the instruction to the Israelites not to leave their dwellings on that fateful night. Outdoors the same end awaited all firstborn.

Interestingly, the verse with which we open the ma'ariv service is taken from a dramatic retelling of the birth of ancient Israel. For the Psalmist, destiny came calling in a cascade of miracles that sprang Israel from slavery and sustained it through the wilderness and beyond. Yet time and again Israel repaid boundless grace with vile ingratitude and betrayal.Nevertheless as our verse makes clear, the covenant goes unruptured.

Compassion tempers wrath. God is willing to try again. The location of our verse near the middle of the psalm seems to imply that the historic relationship between God and Israel turns on unrequited loyalty and love. Divine compassion makes up for human frailty. By the same token, the Talmud observes that our verse (78:38) constitutes the epicenter in terms of verses of the entire Psalter, the quintessential biblical expression of an I-Thou relationship (BT Kiddushin 30a). Nothing but God's infinite mercy can bridge the gap between our need and merit.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.