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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Bo 5772 "A Plague of Light"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Among the masses of graves on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount, is the grave of a Jew named Rabbi Eliezer Yosef Lederberg, who passed away on 23 Sivan 5714 (1954).

On his tombstone is engraved: “He taught Torah to the masses. He learned and reviewed the tractates of Rosh Hashana and Beitzah four thousand times.” Then on the bottom it says, “In his Will he wrote that it’s worth engraving this on my tombstone, so that perhaps the reader may accept upon himself to do the same.”

Eight plagues had ravaged Egypt. The once infallible Super-Power stood in ruin. Its economy had been decimated, masses were dead, and the morale was low. And yet Pharaoh obstinately refused to allow the Jewish people to leave.

(10:21-23) “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be tangible’. Moshe stretched forth his hand toward the heavens and there was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period. No man could see his brother nor could anyone rise from his place for a three-day period; but for all of the B’nai Yisroel there was light in their dwelling.”

In regard to each of the plagues, the pasuk makes it a point to state that the plague did not affect Klal Yisroel. In regard to the plague of darkness however, the verse adds the converse, i.e. that there was light in their dwelling. Why here does the Torah point out that not only was there an absence of the negative, but also a surplus of the positive?

The Medrash[2] relates a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia about the source of the darkness that descended upon Egypt. Rabbi Nechemia is of the opinion that it was the darkness of Gehonim. Rabbi Yehuda however says that the darkness emanated ‘from above’. What does that mean? Aren’t the heavens composed of pure light?

The Medrash[3] discusses how G-d created light in the world. The Medrash quotes Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman who explained that G-d cloaked Himself in light, as it were, and the shine radiated from one end of the world to the other.

Although the true meaning of the Medrash is beyond our comprehension, even on a simple level the Medrash seems enigmatic. Normally, if one wants to reveal something, he removes the cloak or covering which is concealing it. If G-d wanted to bring light into the world, why did He cloak Himself in it, as it were?

In this world, punishment and reward come from diverse sources. Something that serves as a reward cannot be used for punishment, and vice versa. However, the Gemara[4] relates that in the future[5] there will be no Gehonim. Rather, G-d will remove the sun from its ‘casing’ and it will light up the world. The wicked will suffer from the light while the righteous will bask in its ethereal glow. In other words, the reward of the righteous and the retribution of the wicked will emanate from the same source.

In the vernacular of Chazal, a blind person is referred to as a ‘sagee nahar’, which literally means someone who contains ‘too much light’. Simply understood, saying that a blind person contains too much light is a euphemism. However, there is a deeper meaning to the expression of Chazal.

If one of someone’s senses becomes flooded with stimulation, that sense will be as useless as not having the sense at all. For example, if one sits right next to the band at a wedding the person will not be able to hear what the person next to him is saying. Even more extreme, if a Boeing-747 jet were to fly fifty feet over a person’s head, he would not be able to hear anything for some time. His ears will be so overwhelmed by the sounds that, for the moment, he is as good as deaf.

The same concept holds true for all senses, including sight. When there is too much light, one’s vision becomes blurred. If one stares directly at the sun, the rays are so strong that he will be blinded for a few moments.

G-d is Pure Spiritual Light, as it were. That incomprehensible and imperceptible Light is so penetrating that it would completely blind the world. Thus, the Medrash wonders how G-d could infuse the world with light. Why doesn’t that light overwhelm us? To that inquiry, Rabbi Shmuel responded that G-d cloaked Himself in order to conceal most of the light so that only a small amount of it remained.

This is analogous to a person who needs to plug in an electrical appliance. If he sticks the plug into an electric pole, he is going to be instantly electrocuted. There will be an overabundant flow of electricity which will instantly overwhelm him and his appliance. However, if he plugs it into an outlet in the wall, only a minimal flow of electricity will be generated and the appliance will work beautifully.

G-d minimized the revelation of His Light into this world, as it were, so that we can enjoy that light and not be overwhelmed by it. If G-d had not done so, the light would completely blind us and a materialistic existence would be impossible.

The Kedushas Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Barditchev zt’l, offers a unique interpretation of the plague of darkness: He explains that the plague of “darkness” was not darkness at all. In fact, au contraire! G-d removed the darkness[6] so that Egypt was completely exposed to the Divine Light. For the Egyptians, who were steeped in the physicality of this world that light destroyed them.

Depression, in its most severe form, can completely debilitate a person. One may lose all of his motivation and drive so that he is almost physically unable to pull himself out of bed. His self-doubt and negative emotions are so powerful that he may question the purpose of everything he does, “Oh, what’s the use?” “Does anyone really care about me or what I do?” “Would anyone really care if I just disappeared?”

This sense of bleakness descended upon Egypt during the plague of darkness. With the Light of Truth revealed before them they recognized that their entire lives were futile, their very existence lacking meaning or purpose.

For Klal Yisroel however, it was a radically different experience. For the nation anticipating liberation so they can assume their role as the Chosen People, the revelation of the Divine Light was a spiritually blissful experience. Thus, while the Egyptians were overwhelmed by the Divine light, plunging them into a deep psychological darkness, for the Jews it was a spiritually delightful experience. “For all of the B’nai Yisroel there was light in their dwelling”.[7]

The plague of darkness was, in actuality, a plague of “overexposure”. When one walks out of a dark room into a brightly lit room, it takes a few minutes for the pupil of his eye to contract and adjust to the sudden surge of light. In a similar vein, the sudden revelation of the Divine Spiritual Light was too much for the hedonistic Egyptians causing them to lapse into a debilitating ‘darkness’.

The Egyptian plague of darkness bears striking similarity to a common human failure. At times we blind ourselves by exposing ourselves to too much light. For example, if one decides to learn two new pages of Gemarah, the chances are that he will accomplish his goal. However, if he decides that, “Right now I am going to finish the entire Talmud!” the chances are that he will close the volume within five minutes. He has flooded himself with a light that is too bright for him to adjust to by setting for himself a goal too overwhelming and daunting.

We have a terrible habit of wanting to take on too much, too quickly. Then, when the inevitable failure occurs we become despondent and throw in the towel.

Light - even spiritual light - can overwhelm a person if he doesn’t pace himself. One who tries to climb a ladder too quickly and skips a few rungs, will most likely end up on the ground bruised and aggravated.

In the words of the Chazon Ish: “כי באמת אין כל עצב בעולם למי שמכיר אור האורות של האמת- For truthfully, there is no sadness in the world, to those who recognize the ultimate light of truth.” That light can only be attained with patience and constant review - step by step, rung by rung.

“A thick darkness throughout Egypt”

“For the Children of Israel there was light in their dwelling”

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[1] Based on a shmooze by Rabbi Aharon Lopianski shlita, Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Silver Spring, MD, Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bo 5758

[2] Shemos Rabbah 12:2

[3] Bereishis Rabbah, 4:3

[4] Avodah Zarah 3b

[5] when Moshiach comes

[6] i.e. the shades of darkness He originally created in order to protect this world from being overwhelmed by the Divine Light

[7] Perhaps this is why the Egyptians did not stop the Jews when the Jews searched their homes for their treasures and money. With the Divine Light in front of them, their possessions no longer had any meaning to them, and so they had no motivation to stop the Jews from searching through their possessions.

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