Rabbi Darrell Ginsberg

Each of the ten makkos was an event fraught with fear and peril for the Egyptians. While it can be argued that the devastation of makkas bechoros produced the greatest effect in terms of sheer horror, there was perhaps no makka more frightening than Choshech, Darkness. A state of darkness naturally produces a sense of insecurity and anxiety. A three day duration of paralyzing darkness, where people were enveloped completely, must have been terrifying. While the desired effect of both the punishment and the demonstration of God’s power were clear, there was another, less obvious dimension to this plague that separates it from the others. This makka signaled the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s transformation and emancipation. 

The Torah explains that the plague of darkness lasted three days and encompassed the entire land of Egypt. Rashi (Shemos 10:22) comments as follows: 

“Why did He bring darkness on them? Because there were among the Israelites of that generation evil people who did not wish to leave, and they died out during the three days of darkness so that the Egyptians not see their demise thereby saying, "They are being struck as we are." Furthermore, [during the darkness] the Israelites searched and saw their [the Egyptians' valuable] vessels and when they left [Egypt] and asked them [for the valuable vessels] and they (the Egyptians) responded, "We have nothing [to give you]," he (the Israelite) would say to him, "But I did see it in your house and it is in that particular place.”

The explanations Rashi offers (based on a Midrash) are befuddling, to say the least. Insofar as the first answer, what would be inappropriate about the Egyptians witnessing the death of these Jews? After all, they obviously merited this punishment from God! If anything, the Egyptians would be witnesses to God’s justice, showing that God’s actions are in line with truth. There was no favoritism taking place here. What better lesson to teach the Egyptians? 

The second answer requires a further understanding as well. Why was it necessary for Bnai Yisrael to enter these houses prior to the exodus? Why was it important for them to identify the property of the Egyptians to ensure they would hide nothing from them? Would it be the worst crime if an Egyptian was not completely forthright at the time of the actual exodus?

While Rashi’s answers clearly require a deeper and more thorough explanation, there is a more fundamental question that, upon first glance, seems to be a given. There is no other plague other than Choshech where the question of “why did He...” is raised. It is clear the different plagues were sent to both punish the Egyptians and demonstrate God’s control of nature and the elements, and yet this question is never raised. What makes this plague require explanation or justification? Why does Rashi ask this question?

Studying the makkos open up amazing and enlightening insights into God’s wisdom. Many view the makkos as distinct events, or create categories based upon certain similarities between them. Given that, it is possible that the plague of Choshech  played a dual role. On the one hand, it functioned like all the other plagues insofar as the effect it had on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Simultaneously, it marked the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt. 

Understanding Rashi’s answers will help elucidate this concept. In his first answer, he relates a concern that the Egyptians would, in some way, compare the punishment to the Jews with their own situation. The truth is, the judgment afforded to these Jews was obviously just and had the Egyptians seen this, they would have rightly deduced that God does not “play favorites.” However, seeing the Jews being killed would detract from the main objective of the makkos. The primary purpose of the makkos was to demonstrate God’s complete control over nature. When explaining His objectives to Moshe, God tells him as follows (Shemos 7:5): “Egypt will then know that I am Hashem when I send forth. My hand over Egypt and bring out the B'nei Yisrael from among them.”

In what capacity would the Egyptians understand God? The Rashbam (ibid) explains that they would know God was the ruler and master of all. This result would emerge through His hand being brought over Egypt. It would seem that God’s objective through the plagues was to demonstrate his dominion over the natural world, a fact obviously brought out through the very source of the plagues, nature. Therefore, one could deduce that the objective of this plague was like every other one. However, the question remains - why then did God choose this makka to pass judgment on these members of Bnai Yisrael? This is where the above theory plays out. The beginning of the exit from Egypt had begun and one of the first steps is determining who would be part of this incredible event. God meted out His justice at this time, a necessary precursor to Bnai Yisrael’s process of leaving Egypt, but he did so in a way that would not distract the Egyptians from His primary objective.

The second explanation might also be related to the concept of the duality of this plague. One of the principal psychological issues facing the fledgling nation of Bnai Yisrael was the intense slave mentality that was an inherent part of their lives. In forging this nation, God would strip them of their psychological enslavement to the Egyptians and transform Bnai Yisrael into servants of God. Part of this process was to exchange identities and roles at the time of the exodus. Bnai Yisrael would no longer be the slaves, and the Egyptians would no longer be the masters. This new role is expressed in God’s desire for Bnai Yisrael to claim the property of the Egyptians prior to leaving Egypt (see Shemos 3:21-22). Transferring ownership to Bnai Yisrael demonstrates the role reversal. This process was critical - therefore it needed to be complete. Part of the dominant role of a slave master is knowledge of every facet of a slave’s life--a demonstration of total control. If a slave is able to hide his own property from the master’s knowledge, it produces a small sense of freedom. It was this state of mind that was being targeted in the plague of darkness. Having Bnai Yisrael possess complete knowledge of that which was owned by the Egyptians would solidify their role as master, a necessary prelude to the upcoming exodus. 

These two explanations shed light on this obscure plague. This plague was more than a demonstration of God’s control of the universe. The Exodus had begun with the implementation of Darkness, and so too Bnai Yisrael’s evolution as a nation.  Looking at this makka, one can see beyond the supernatural event, witnessing the infinite chachma of God.