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… (Exod. 10:21-23)
Insularity of heart
locks out the cries
floating on the air.
Opacity of spirit
rebuffs the anguish
in the eyes of slaves.
And finally darkness comes:
total eclipse, dense
humanity paralysed from without
as it is within.
The Etz Hayim Commentary of the JPS notes that the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 14:2) calls the plague of darkness “the darkness of Hell /Geihinnom, connecting the darkness that was visited on Egypt with the primordial darkness preceding God’s declaration, “Let there be light!” The Etz Hayim says, “Just as the light of Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, the reward that awaits the righteous, [so] the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Geihinnom, the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors…The person who cannot see his neighbour is incapable of spiritual growth, of rising from where he is currently.” The Etz Hayim points out that in discussions ascertaining how early one can recite morning prayers, “dawn” is defined as “when one can recognize the face of a friend” (Talmud, Berachot 9b). When one can see the other and recognize the Divine image shared by all humanity, the darkness begins to dissipate.
On the verse, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was,” the Chiddushei HaRim comments that the greater darkness is when a man does not see his neighbour and does not sympathise with his pain – and the result is that his capacity to feel becomes dull and paralysed – hence no-one could rise from his place. The Even HaEzel* (Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer) adds that this is alluded to by the Sages in the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah: “”Our rabbis said that it [the darkness] was as dense as a dinar.” For the chase after money, after golden dinars, heightens the selfishness and darkens the eyes, so they did not see nor feel the pain of Israel.”
In a commentary on the Parasha from 2008 http://www.jtsa.edu/Conservative_Judaism/JTS_Torah_Commentary/Bo_5768.xml, Rabbi Lisa Gelber says, “The darkness for the Egyptians in Egypt is not merely an absence of light; it has substance that remains for an extended period of time. In his commentary, Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that the darkness was composed of such a thick, foglike substance that it extinguished all of the lamps; there was no fire at all. No light. No way to see up or down; no means of telling day from night. No opportunity to see oneself in relation to others.
“The Torah reminds us that the Israelites were afflicted with hard labor and spiritual strain. The Egyptians did not see the despair of the people of Israel. They could not look into the eyes of their fellow human beings and acknowledge their pain. They stumbled about in the darkness, tripping over the core institutions of respect and freedom…These were a people blind and rooted to the ground, a people engulfed by spiritual and emotional darkness. How does darkness become a plague? By blocking the light, turning off our awareness, shutting down relationships, and preventing us from becoming agents of change…
At the end of her commentary, Rabbi Gelber considers the Havdala service, “How do we end Shabbat each week? We light a braided candle to illuminate the night. The torchlike flame helps us to see through the dark… to help guide us into another week, another opportunity to elevate ourselves and our world through acts that express kindness and motivate justice. In order to survive, in order to move forward and grow, one must see the other not as other but as an-other: another being, critical to our society and our world.
Rabbi Gelber cites the verse “Ner Hashem nishmat adam — the soul of man is the lamp of God” (Proverbs 20:27) and adds, “Each of us carries God’s spark. May we have the courage and the wisdom to illuminate the dark, shining light on the blessings we have to offer the world.”
*Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer (1870 – 1953) was a famous Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva and Halachic decisor. He is also known as the “Even HaEzel” – the title of his commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
Rabbi Meltzer was born in the city of Mir, in what is today Belarus, the son of Rabbi Baruch Peretz Meltzer. From age 10, he studied at the Mir Yeshiva and at age 14 began studying at the Volozhin yeshiva under Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv of Volozhin), and Rav Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik – pioneers of the system of Talmudic study in Lithuania, which subsequently forged its imprint on the method of study used by leading rabbis from then on. He remained there for seven years.
While at the yeshiva, he became involved in the secret [Orthodox] Ness Ziona Society, part of the Hovevei Zion movement. Together with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, he contributed to the founding of the city of Hadera by buying land for an etrog orchard.
In 1894, Rabbi Melzer became a maggid shiur at the Slabodka yeshiva, together with his brother in law, Rabbi Epstein. In 1897, Rabbi Meltzer left Slabodka to lead another yeshiva in Slutsk.
In 1903, Rabbi Meltzer was appointed as the Rabbi of Slutsk, a position he held for 20 years. After the Soviet Revolution he continued in this capacity, and was targeted by the Soviet authorities who sought to eradicate religious institutions. Rabbi Meltzer expended great effort to protect his Yeshiva, and was arrested a number of times. After his release he would hide for a while in a small village near Slutzk, but eventually was forced to flee for his life. In 1923 he secretly escaped over the border of Poland to Kletzk, a town that lay on the Russian border, where the famous ‘Etz Chaim’ Yeshiva was situated and headed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. For two years Rabbi Meltzer taught in Kletzk, until his departure for Israel in 1925.
In Jerusalem he was asked to lead the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, where he remained until his death. The Mashgiach in Etz Chaim at the time was the renowned Tzaddik of Jerusalem, Reb Aryeh Levine, who had been a student of Rabbi Meltzer in Slutzk. Rabbi Meltzer was also close to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine.
Rabbi Meltzer authored seven monumental works on the Rambam, which he called ‘Even HaEzel’. His wife not only urged him to publish them, but also transcribed all the manuscripts to prepare them for publishing.