Each week we invite a different rabbi or Jewish thought leader to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah each week, subscribe to our newsletter.
This week’s author is Rabbi Karen Thomashow.
Rabbi Karen Thomashow is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and currently serves as Associate Rabbi of Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dr. David Lieber asked a question about the ninth of the ten infamous plagues wrought against the Egyptian Pharoah and his people to break the slavery of our ancient people. Could it be that the ninth plague—the plague of darkness—is one plague which could have been counteracted by the average person? When the blood seeped into the water supply, we understand that it was irreversible—the supply went bad. When hail fell from the sky, no one could stop the clouds from producing it. But what about darkness? “During all the other plagues, the average Egyptian could do nothing to end them. During a plague of darkness, however, could Egyptians not light candles?”
According to a commentary, a Midrash, and the Talmud, the answer may be no. No, the Egyptians could not do anything even to end this plague of darkness—because, the darkness is not what we think it was. The ninth plague was not simply the absence of light.
“The ninth plague was not simply the absence of light.”
Twelfth century commentator Ovadiah Sforno suggests that the plague of darkness was a spiritual or psychological darkness—even possibly, depression. The English word melancholy helps make this point, as it is from the Greek, meaning a dark mood. Perhaps, argues a commentary to the commentary, because of the eight previous plagues, the Egyptians were downtrodden; possibly they were even dismayed by the “realization of how much their own comfort depended on the enslavement of others.”
Exodus Rabba, a midrash, calls the plague of darkness, the darkness of Geheinom. And what is the darkness of Geheinom, our version of hell? To not be able to feel the pain of others. To not be able to recognize the dignity of afflicted neighbors.
The Talmud contains a third and final point about what the darkness really symbolizes. According to Berachot, one may only recite the morning prayers at dawn. It would be too simple for our sages to have suggested that dawn is twilight or dawn is early sunrise. Rather, when is dawn? They suggest that it is “the moment when one can recognize the face of a friend.”
Our tradition suggests that the plague did not happen in a way that suggests because it was dark, people could not see one another. But rather, when people cannot see one another, it becomes dark.
“When people cannot see each other, it becomes dark.”
* Title based on Exodus 10:22
 David Lieber in Etz Hayim Torah Commentary p.377
 Exodus Rabba 14:2
 b. Berachot 9b