By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
In this Parsha/Torah Portion, God continues to mete out His wrath against Pharaoh and the Egyptian People for oppressing the Israelites. This includes the last three plagues: locusts, which destroy the remnants of produce left from the plague of hail; darkness, which afflicts the Egyptians, but not the Israelites; and the Slaying of the Firstborn, which remains the most difficult to comprehend, although scholars have advanced theories to explain it.
I focus on the Plague of Darkness, which we can interpret both metaphorically and physically. When I was studying Shemote/Exodus in Hebrew Day School, the rabbis always emphasized the Commentary of Rashi (early 11th Century), who loved to pile “miracle upon miracle,” making God’s activities as remarkable as possible. To this day, I wonder how many other-logical-minded Jews continue to believe Rashi, and take his commentaries literally. Rashi taught us young children that the Egyptians dwelt in darkness, but that the Israelites had light in their dwellings—a literal reading of the text. Furthermore, he expanded, if an Egyptian held a burning torch before himself, he was unable to behold its flames.
How shall we interpret Rashi’s Commentary here? Must we take it literally, or may we avail ourselves of the common literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole, poetic exaggeration?
As a student of literature, both secular and religious, I hold for the latter opinion. Rashi is trying to teach us a lesson: none so blind as those who will not see. While the other plagues all attacked entities which the Egyptians considered essential, or were parts of the agricultural or natural chain they required to live—yes, even the humble frogs, which ate thousands, millions, or harmful insects—the plague of darkness was God’s way of showing them that they had grown truly blind to their fellow-humans’ suffering. How else explain their connivance in throwing the Israelites’ babies into the Nile? How could they provide taskmasters to lash the Israelites, when they were too weary to provide the cruel Pharaoh with his stepped-up labor requirements?
Of all the plagues, Darkness is the one still operating today, and there is no lack of Pharaohs. Where there is Darkness, let us not fear to shine a light on evil; where there is wrongdoing, let us hasten to correct it. To do otherwise, would be neither Jewish nor human. Remember this.