“Every man for himself!” goes the popular phrase. In other words, you’re on your own. You cannot rely on anyone else but yourself to solve any problems, or to extricate yourself from a difficult situation. It’s not a circumstance in which most people would like to find themselves. Knowing that those around you care about your welfare, and are ready to help out, should you need assistance, is a comforting thought. You are not alone.
Of the many important lessons of the Torah, one of the most important is the concept of caring for others, whether they are from your group, or not. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is balanced by “You shall love the stranger.” Whether the other person is from your group or not, you must care for him. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asks Cain of God. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests in his book Jewish Wisdom, “It is no exaggeration to claim that the rest of the Bible is a resoundingly affirmative response to Cain’s query.” Life without such a support system would be a very dark life indeed. The feeling of being alone is a frightening feeling. Even if physically there may be other people around a person, if he knows that they could not care less about his welfare, he is still very much alone.
Which brings us to the Ninth Plague — Darkness. As Exodus 10:21-22 puts it: “So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No person saw his fellow, and no person got up from his place.” It truly is a dark world where no one sees his fellow, where no one concerns himself with the needs of others, where it really is “every man for himself.” More than we have rights which we may demand others respect towards us, we have responsibilities which we must fulfill towards others.
I would suggest that more than it was the darkness enveloping Egypt which prevented the Egyptians from seeing each other, and from getting up to attend to each other’s needs, perhaps it was the reverse – since the Egyptians failed to live up to their obligations towards each other, and to notice what their fellow man needed, darkness enveloping the land was a natural result. When people are only concerned with themselves, it is very difficult for any light to shine through.
May we all commit ourselves to being concerned with the needs of others (as well as our own needs, of course), in order that we illuminate the world with the light of friendship, cooperation, and mutual responsibility.
(Based on ב. יאושזון, מאוצרנו הישן – שמות-ויקרא, p. 52)