Parashat Bo
Rabbi Isaac Mann

This week’s Torah portion contains the description of the last three makkot (plagues) that struck Egypt before the Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Jewish slaves to leave. With that the geulah (redemption) began.

I was always intrigued by the penultimate makkah – that of hoshekh (darkness). It does not seem to fit into the order or sequence established by the other plagues whereby they seem to get more and more severe as they progress from the first plague of blood to the last one – death of the firstborn. The early makkot, those of blood, frogs, and lice were more like nuisances, not really destructive of humans or property.  The first two were even duplicated to some extent by the Egyptian magicians. But as the plagues continue they get more destructive culminating in barad (hail) and arbeh (locusts). The former was severe enough to kill animals, as well as humans, not brought indoors and to destroy crops and trees (Exodus  9:25). The latter, the eighth of the plagues, devastated whatever was spared by the barad. It was an infestation so intense that it surpassed all previous ones and will never be reached in the future (Ex. 10:14), a prediction that only the Creator could make.

Along comes the ninth plague, to which the Torah devotes only three verses, fewer than to any other, and instead of overwhelming destruction or devastation, we have what appears to be another “nuisance” or “discomfort” plague. For three days the Egyptians (unlike the Hebrews) were in total darkness, and this was no ordinary darkness. It was so intense that people could not move from their place. According to some commentaries, it was a darkness that could be felt, which prevented those who were sitting from standing up and those who were standing from sitting down (see Rashi to Ex. 10:22). And then it was over. We don’t find Pharaoh summoning Moses and asking him to pray to G-d to remove this plague, as we find with most of the others. So unless we say that there must have been Egyptians who died as a result of this heavy darkness which rendered them immobile and unable to get to their pantries to eat or drink, then we are back to our initial observation, namely,  plague #9, limited in scope and in time, was more of a nuisance than anything else, a kind of forced period of inactivity.

This consideration could help explain why the Rabbis of the Midrash invested much more meaning into this plague than what appears warranted from the Torah text itself. For the Rabbis, the makkah of hoshekh actually did result in property loss as well as in death, but in rather unusual ways. The property loss came about from the ability of the Israelites, for whom there was no darkness (not even when they were in the same houses as the Egyptians, who couldn’t see anything), to snoop around and seek out and identify the various possessions of their soon-to-be erstwhile slave masters. When the Hebrews were ready to leave after the final plague, they came to the Egyptians and asked to “borrow” their silver and gold – and if the latter denied possession of such, the Hebrews were able to point out where they were stored (see Rashi to Ex. 10:22).

As to this makkah resulting in death, ironically it wasn’t the Egyptians who died, according to the Rabbis, but Israelites who would refuse to leave Egypt during the impending liberation. There seems to be people at all times who would rather live in slavery than in freedom (see, e.g. Exodus 21:5-6). These “wicked” Hebrews died and were buried during the three-day plague, when the Egyptians would not be aware of it, and could not then claim that they were not the only ones who suffered from the darkness (see Rashi ibid. and Rashi to Ex. 13:18).

Thus, the Rabbis saw in the ninth plague not just discomfort but actual loss, albeit indirectly, to life and property, an appropriate runner-up to the most devastating plague – the death of the firstborn – that was soon to follow.

One can however see the hoshekh as an apt precursor to the tenth plague without necessarily invoking Midrashic overlays to the text. The darkness that plagued Egypt symbolized a spiritual death, in which “one didn’t see [better: look out for] his brother nor stand up for [better: help] him” (Ex. 10:23). The Egyptians had sunk to the level of looking out only for oneself. For the Israelites, however, there was light wherever they were. Unlike their neighbors, the Jewish people cared for one another and sought their brethren’s welfare. That spiritual light would soon translate into physical freedom, while the darkness and self-centeredness of the enslavers, their spiritual emptiness, would soon lead to overwhelming physical loss.

Let’s look out for one another and our lives too will be filled with light and freedom.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.