“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt. And the darkness will become darker.’ So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days. But for all the children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings.”
Of the 10 plagues G-d brought upon the Egyptians, that of darkness was the most unusual. Unlike the others, there was no loss of life or property among the Egyptians. Pharaoh did not panic when he summoned Moses. Instead, the emperor, after again refusing to let the Jewish people go, warned Moses never to return to the palace.
The plague of darkness was not meant for the Egyptians. It was meant for the masses of Jews who had assimilated into Egyptian society. For three days, G-d kept Egypt in darkness as he eradicated millions of Jews who refused to return to their people.
There is barely a hint of this in the Torah. On the contrary: scriptures tell of the light that blessed the Jewish homes while the Egyptians were literally stuck in a darkness that stemmed from hell. The operative phrase, however, is “the children of Israel.” The assimilated had long left their brethren in Goshen and did not benefit from any miracle.
This is how the Midrash Rabbah describes it: “Because there were wicked people in Israel with patrons from among the Egyptians. And they possessed riches and honor and did not want to leave.”
The Midrash says G-d appeared to be in a dilemma. If He brought a plague upon the wicked Jews the Egyptians would be pleased. They would argue that the plagues exempted nobody, rather were the result of natural phenomena.
The Egyptians might then conduct a body count. They would have seen that many more Jews than gentiles had died in the plagues.
How many Jews perished in the darkness? The Midrash gives us a clue when it says that only one in five Jews left Egypt with Moses while the rest met with sudden death. Another view is that only one in 25 Jews participated in the exodus. That meant that 96 percent of the Jews had died in Egypt. Given that the Torah reports that 600,000 Jews ages 20 to 60 left the country, at least 15 million Jews were killed by G-d on the eve of redemption.
The assimilated Jews were not necessarily sinners. Until the plague of darkness, the only divine commandment that separated the Jews from the Egyptians was circumcision. Otherwise, both communities were bound by the seven laws of Noah. What distinguished the pious Jews of Goshen was that they remained children of Israel. They kept their names, wives, language, dress and maintained respect for each other.
In contrast, the assimilated had become estranged from the rest of the Jews. That, the Talmud says, led them to walk away from G-d and eventually turn to the idols of Egypt. They resented being reminded that their success stemmed from the One Above. During the plagues, the Egyptians, including Pharaoh, saw the hand of G-d. The assimilated dismissed any connection.
This estrangement defined their lives and those of their ancestors. In 1947, Samuel Goldwyn, one of the original Hollywood moguls, wanted to turn an acclaimed book, “Earth and High Heaven,” into a first-class movie. Canadian author Gwethalyn Graham, outspoken on anti-Semitism, told of a young Jewish man who falls in love with a gentile and then faces the ire of their families and society. The irascible Goldwyn was warned off the project by his confidant, Garson Kanin.
“How long have you and Mrs. Goldwyn been married?” Kanin, 33 years Goldwyn’s junior, asked.
“Twenty-two years. What are you talking about?” Goldwyn replied.
“Wait,” Kanin continued. “Ruth and I have been married for four and a half. Would you says your marriage has been a success?”
“Of course,” Goldwyn said. “Certainly.”
“Fine,” Kanin said. “So has mine. Now, Frances is gentile, and so is Ruth. And you and I are Jewish. You don’t see it?”
“See what?” Goldwyn replied.
“Why I can’t get interested in the drama of this subject and why I don’t see how you can,” Kanin said.
Goldwyn, who had bought the rights to “Earth and High Heaven” for $100,000, eventually understood. He rejected several adaptations, including one by Ring Lardner Jr., whom Goldwyn accused of “writing too much like a Jew.”
The plague of darkness would echo throughout Jewish law. The Jew is commanded to save the pious gentile rather than the renegade Jew. Maimonides rules that a Jewish midwife must violate the Sabbath to deliver the child of a gentile woman while ignoring the pleas of a Jewess who practices idolatry — even for a handsome sum.
The devout Jews in Egypt were kept extremely busy during the plague. They were commanded to bury their brethren while the Egyptians were mired in a darkness so thick they could feel it. By the time the darkness lifted the assimilated Jews had all been buried and the Egyptians were none the wiser.
The Jews then praised G-d for sparing them the shame of their enemies. Soon, Moses would embrace a huge number of Egyptians who clamored to join the Jews in the exodus. The Egyptians would prove troublesome in the desert but never leave the Jewish people.
King Solomon explained the paradigm in Ecclesiastes. G-d treats the Jewish people differently because of the oath of their ancestors — whether that of the patriarchs or at Mount Sinai. The gentiles never took that oath.
“It is better not to pledge than to pledge and not pay.”