Every year at our Pesach seders, we recite a list of “ten plagues” which afflicted the Egyptians before they finally freed Bnei Yisrael from slavery. The ninth of these plagues is the plague of “darkness.” Growing up, I harbored a very specific conception of what it must have been like to live through this plague. I imagined Egyptians fumbling about in the darkness, constantly crossing each other’s paths; constantly colliding with each other; constantly confronting each other in a series of unexpected and undesired encounters.
That is one way the plague of darkness might have transpired. It is, perhaps, the way most of us would have expected it to unfold. But that is not how the Egyptians actually experienced it. Instead, the Torah tells us: “Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. And no man saw his brother, and no one rose from his place for three days” (Exod. 10:22). Against my intuitions, contact between Egyptians (wanted or otherwise) did not increase during the plague of darkness—it decreased. Indeed, for three days, no one as much as “rose from his place.” And that, Rabbi Mordechai Machlis once explained, is exactly what “darkness” of the spiritual sort tends to look like. “Darkness,” per the Torah’s paradigm, is cast primarily as an antisocial phenomenon, he argued. It is defined not merely as that which renders us incapable of seeing, but, more pointedly, as that which renders us incapable of seeing each other. Thus: “and no man saw his brother, and no one rose from his place.”
This, to me, is a penetrating insight. And though it was originally presented to me in a homiletic vein, I can think of at least one context in which it finds halakhic expression as well. In Sefer Devarim, the Torah commands us to recite the “shema” prayer twice each day: “when you arise and when you retire” (Deut. 6:7). Well, when exactly do people “arise?” Interestingly, the verb “arise” [ק.ו.ם], invoked here in the command to recite the shema, is precisely the same verb used with reference to the Egyptians during the plague of darkness: “no one rose [ק.ו.ם] from his place for three days.” And just as the Egyptians did not “rise” so long as they were surrounded by the plague of darkness, Chazal—in what may perhaps constitute a subtle bit of intertextual exegesis—tacitly assume that the period of “rising,” as it pertains to the recitation of the shema, cannot begin until darkness has passed, either.
This begs the question: At what point of the day can we say that the darkness of night has passed—that is, that it is “light” out? Here, too, our sages seem to take their cues from the plague of darkness:
It was taught: Rabbi Meir says: [One may recite the shema] from the time one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog. Rabbi Akiva says: From the time one can distinguish between a donkey and a wild donkey. Others say: From the time one can recognize his friend from a distance of four amot. Said Rav Huna: The law follows the opinion of the “others” (Ber. 9b).
How fascinating! The legal definition of “light” that is ultimately settled upon in the Talmud—and, indeed, codified in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 58:1)—is, once again, socially determined. What is “light,” according to the Jewish tradition? Both narratively (as per the plague of darkness) and normatively (per the laws of the shema), it is that which enables us to see others.
And if, as we are speculating, the normative definition of “light” may in some ways be modelled upon the narrative of the “ten plagues,” their connection could hardly be more apropos. At several points throughout the saga of the ten plagues, Moshe announces that the purpose of these plagues is to impress upon the Egyptians that “there is none like Hashem our God” (Exod. 8:7); that “I am Hashem in the midst of the land” (Exod. 8:18); that “the earth is Hashem’s;” (Exod. 9:29); etc. Yet the plague of darkness leaves it clear that Egypt’s failure to acknowledge Hashem is not principally a theological one. It is a moral one. These Egyptians cannot even bring themselves to “see” their fellow human beings as “their brothers” (c.f. Exod. 10:22); small wonder, then, that they do not recognize God above as their “father.”
We cannot earnestly endeavor to “see the light” of God in our lives so long as we perpetuate the “darkness” of social discord. Perhaps this is why the biblical Egyptians’ oppressive political regime never quite proved compatible with faith in the God of ethical monotheism. And perhaps it is why the shema—our quintessential declaration, as Jews, of our faith in God—may not be recited until “one can recognize one’s friend.” Only when God’s children are united among themselves may they venture to proclaim His unity to one another: “Hear O Israel, Hashem is your God, Hashem is one” (Deut. 6:4).
Chag Kasher V’Sameach!