Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Bo: Putting the plague of darkness in a whole new light

Midrash Tanchuma starts with a rather unusual assertion. The plague of darkness took the law in its own hands and delivered a more intense form of darkness than God instructed. One that the Midrash later describes as so palpable that if you were standing you couldn’t sit and if you were sitting, you couldn’t stand. 

God’s original intention for the plague of Darkness

The major commentaries (Beur Amaarim & Eitz Yoseph) on Midrash Tanchuma quote the Yefai Toar – a commentator to Shemot Rabbah. He says that  God’s original intention for the Plague of Darkness was a very different role than those of the first 8 plagues. As we mentioned last week (Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Vaera), the first 8 plagues were designed to reflect God’s divine attribute of punishing  measure for measure so the Egyptians can experience the exact nature of the degradation and humiliation that they inflicted on the Jews. This provides an opportunity for the Egyptians to learn and grow from each plague and change their ways. In a sense, the plagues were not just punishments, rather growth opportunities.

However, God intended that the Plague of Darkness fulfill two very different purposes.  First, to enable the Jews to scout out items they would ask for before departing Egypt. Secondly,  to obscure from the Egyptians the fact that many Jews died and were buried during the plague of darkness. God was concerned that some Egyptians  would gloat over the death of Jews.  Not to mention the fact that it would shatter the impact of the first 8 plagues. The Egyptians would see the huge death rate among Jews as a proof that God is just as angry at the Jews. Therefore, enslaving the Jews was not such an immoral act.  

Can the “darkness” be accused of insurrection? 

The Midrash asks this question and asserts that it was not a rebellious act, rather it was a manifestation of something that God would have wanted. Midrash Tanchuma provides an example of a king who orders his general to give 50 lashes to a rebellious subject. However, the general is so indignant at the rebellious subject that he administers 100 lashes instead.

The question remains,  why did the “darkness” feel the need to make this plague more intense for the Egyptians?

The true nature of darkness

The Midrash goes on to record a difference of opinion between the source of darkness for this more intensified plague. Rabbi Yehudah says the darkness emanated from the heavens above. After all, it says in our parsha “Stretch out your hands to the heavens.” (Shemot 10:21). While Rabbi Nechemia says it was drawing its darkness from below – Gehenom -(otherwise known as hell). The following verse is brought to support this view:

A land of thick darkness, as darkness itself, a land of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness” (Job 10:22)

While the beginning of  the verse certainly proves that darkness is associated with death, the Midrash learns something seemingly unrelated from the end of the verse. 

Be prepared when you get up to heaven

Midrash Tanchuma derives from the end of the verse that a Jew must prepare to deliver his insights on the Torah after one’s death. 

Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levy said that ….a person should prepare to deliver (to the heavenly assembly) whatever Torah they have  learned in life.” 

In an attempt to understand the motivation of the “darkness” to intensify the plague I would like to stitch together several of these Midrashim.

Aligning the plague of darkness with the first 8 plagues

Perhaps the “darkness” wanted to accomplish God’s objectives (searching out valuables and burying the dead) while, at the same time,  allowing the  plague of darkness to reach the same status as the first eight. In other words, by taking on a more intense form it could provide the Egyptians a powerful moral lesson. The first 8 plagues concentrated on the degradation that the Jews suffered at the hands of their taskmasters. However, there is another grim aspect to slavery. It is akin to being a prisoner. It means the loss of all personal freedoms. Which is exactly the way the Midrash described the plague – darkness so thick that you were a prisoner in your own home: If you were standing you couldn’t sit. If you were sitting, you couldn’t stand.

The day of reckoning

One of the major roles of a Jew in this world is to study the Torah – the great gift that the Jewish People received shortly after being redeemed from Egypt. Naturally God would like to see what new insights and moral lessons we gleaned in our time on earth. The Midrash derived this from  the same verse which described the intense darkness. 

Perhaps non-Jews too have a day of reckoning. That can’t be expected to prepare insights in the Torah but they too can share moral lessons and insights they learned in their lifetime. The plague of darkness was transformed into another such opportunity to learn a moral lesson. It became the most intuitive and obvious examples of God’s instructive punishments which are carefully calibrated to be  מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה measure for measure.

God wants every human being to learn and grow from the darkness in our lives. 

Indeed there was a “multitude” of non-Jews who learned the moral lessons from the plagues. They left most of their worldly possessions behind and joined the Jewish People in their fateful journey into the desert. 

They saw the light  amidst the plague of darkness.

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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