Midrash Tanchuma Bo – The lost Jews of Egypt

According to Midrash Tanchuma, the ‘Plague of Darkness’ was so upset that, despite eight previous plagues, the Egyptians still did not accept G-d’s authority.  So although it was designed to simply bring darkness, the plague took the law in its own hands and decided to manifest itself in a more debilitating manner. 

If you ask “how can a plague take the law into its own hands,” the Midrash offers a parable:

It may be compared to a king whose slave had rebelled against him. He ordered someone: ‘Go give him fifty lashes.’ Instead, he administered a hundred lashes, adding fifty of his own accord. Similarly, when the Holy One, Blessed Be He, sent the (plague of) darkness upon Egypt, the darkness added something of its own.”

The more severe plague of darkness was so thick and palpable that, according to the Midrash, no Egyptian could move for 3 days. 

The many shades of the Plague of Darkness

In order to shed light on this unusual Midrash, we must consider the fact that the plague of darkness operated on many levels. 

For the Jews who were part of the great Exodus, it was a darkness which allowed them to see. According to the Midrash, they scouted out valuables that the Egyptians had. This would fulfill a promise G-d made to Abraham that after a long enslavement, his ancestors would be compensated by leaving Egypt “with great wealth” (Genesis 15:4). 

 The darkness of death

The Midrash says that it was during the plague of darkness that Jews who refused to leave Egypt, died and were buried. For these Jews it was the ultimate darkness. The plague obscured this reality from the Egyptians. Perhaps the impact of all G-d’s supernatural plagues would have been undermined if the Egyptians knew that many Jews died as well. Using the most  conservative opinion in Midrash Tanchuma, approximately 8 million Jews died during the plague of darkness. A staggering figure.

Perhaps these Jews figured that along with the exodus of their fellow Jews, anti-semitism would depart as well.  So they could remain in Egypt in peace and prosperity. 

Darkness as in lack of perception

What was the plague of darkness for the Egyptians? Midrash Tanchuma on last week’s Parsha, Vaera,  pointed out that every plague was a measure for measure punishment for the emotional anguish that the Egyptians inflicted upon the Jews. In this week’s parsha, Midrash Tanchuma offers a completely different perspective. The plagues mirrored the military tactics that an invading army would use to conquer another country. Undermine their water supply (Blood), evoke fear and extreme discomfort (Frogs, Lice, Wild animals, Boils, Darkness), destroy their food supply and military equipment – AKA: horses (Locusts, Pestilence, Hail) , and finally, eliminate powerful figures (First born).  Obviously the plagues operated on many levels so there is no contradiction between the Midrashim. In either case, the Egyptians were getting loud and clear messages about G-d’s dominion over nature and, most certainly, G-d’s dominion over Egypt. 

Yet the message did not pierce the conscience of the Egyptians. There was a very small percentage of Egyptians who recognized G-d and actually left Egypt with the Jews. They were known as the “Erev Rav” – the mixed multitude. For the most part, when it came to perceiving that the G-d of the Hebrews was the one true god – the Egyptians were in the dark. Hence, the vigilante ‘Plague of Darkness’ made itself more intense.

The plague that reflected the spiritual level of the Egyptians

Back to our original question. What exactly is the Midrash trying to convey? 

According to the Shem Mishmuel (A major Hassidic work by Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain: 1855 – 1926), every person has a mix of good and evil. Every person makes the choice whether or not to have their good inclination dominate over their evil inclination. The first 8 plagues provided the potential for the good inclination to prevail. But despite these supernatural manifestations of G-d’s presence, the Egyptians were so mired in their way of thinking that they were unable to accept God’s authority. So, according to the the Shem Mishmuel the midrash was expressing the fact that the severity of the plague was a dynamic process.  Had they perceived G-d’s authority, basic darkness would have been sufficient. Since they were still in the dark about G-d authority, they deserved a more intense darkness.

As far as the “Plague of Darkness” going above and beyond its mandate, the Shem Mishmuel explains it in the following manner. By not leveraging the first 8 plagues to allow their inner goodness to prevail, the Egyptians were, in effect, bringing a higher degree of darkness upon themselves.  

The spectrum of death and darkness

Another approach to the Midrash is that of Rav Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, as recorded in Likutei Halachot (Yoreh Deah, Laws of New Grain, 3:4:1) by his leading disciple, Rebbe Nosson. He sees the whole process of exile as, what he calls “Galut haguf” – an exile mired in physicality and materialism. A world missing a spiritual dimension. The plague of darkness represented their lack of perception of G-d even after 8 plagues. The Jews who had no intention of leaving Egypt were in the same exile of physicality as the Egyptians. This begs the question, if the Egyptians and Jews were both unable to perceive G-d after the first 8 plagues, why were the consequences so different?

According to Rav Nachman darkness is akin to death so the consequences are not so different. However, there is perhaps, another message in this rather unusual Midrash about the Egyptians getting an extra dosage of darkness. At the end of the day Egyptian culture was a far cry from the G-d that Moses was introducing to Pharaoh and his people. A G-d that punished measure for measure in order to provide an opportunity for personal growth. Could the Egyptians transition from witchcraft and idolatry in 8 easy lessons? Apparently the potential was there.

The plague of darkness, spiritual detachment & assimilation

But what can we say for the Jews who perished during the “Plague of Darkness.” Yes, 210 years of slavery caused immense damage to their extraordinary heritage. Their connection to their great spiritual luminaries, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, & Joseph was severed. However, they were  privileged to be under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. And they had 8 chances to perceive G-d’s involvement in their lives.  In fact, they were within days of being the only slaves in the history of the world to be extracted from the grip of a major power. In a world dominated by slavery and exploitation, shouldn’t the witnessing of an evil empire brought to its knees have sparked a recognition of G-d’s divine providence? A sense of gratitude? As the prophet Isaiah said “even an ox knows its owner” (Isaiah 1:3). 

Why wasn’t the “Plague of Darkness” upset about the massive loss of life among the Jews? Apparently, these Jews were so totally assimilated, they were, tragically, beyond reach. Even a frightening, palpable, darkness would not have provided them any illumination.

Our glorious exodus from Egypt was also a frightening portrait of extreme assimilation.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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