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Three Plagues of Darkness

Rav Yaakov Beasley
In memory of Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid and Shimon ben Moshe z"l.


A.                 INTRODUCTION – The Anomalies of the Beginning


Our parasha begins, apparently, where last week's ended.  Despite the effects of yet another devastating plague, Pharoah refuses to release the Jewish people from their bondage.  Again, God charges Moshe with appearing before Pharaoh.  Already, we know in advance that Pharaoh will refuse to listen.  We wonder: is there any significance our parasha beginning with plague #8 (locusts)[1]? Could not our reading have just as easily begun with plague #6 (boils) or #7 (hail) from last week; or with the next plague, darkness, instead[2]?


            Our parasha's beginning might assist us in locating how the plague of locusts differs from its predecessors:


1 And Hashem said unto Moshe: 'Come in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, so that I might show these My signs in the midst of them; 2 and so that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son's son, what I wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I toyed with them; and you will know that I am Hashem.' 3 And Moshe and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him: 'Thus says Hashem, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? let My people go, that they may serve Me. 4 Else, if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow will I bring locusts into your border; 5 and they shall cover the face of the earth, that one shall not be able to see the earth; and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remains for you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which grows for you out of the field; 6 and your houses shall be filled, and the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians; as neither your fathers nor your fathers' fathers have seen, since the day that they were upon the earth unto this day.' And he turned, and went out from Pharaoh.

7 And Pharaoh's servants said unto him: 'How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve Hashem their God, do you not see that Egypt is destroyed?' 8 And Moshe and Aaron were brought again unto Pharaoh; and he said unto them: 'Go, serve Hashem your God; but who are they that shall go?' 9 And Moshe said: 'We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go; for we must hold a feast unto Hashem.' 10 And he said unto them: 'So be Hashem with you, as I will let you go, and your little ones; see you that evil is before your face. 11 Not so; go now you that are men, and serve Hashem; for that is what you desire.' And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence.


            The first anomaly that distinguishes this plague from the previous plagues in its opening command, "Come in to Pharaoh."  While this command has appeared previously (6:11, 7:6, 9:1), it always was accompanied with further instructions – to announce the onset of the upcoming plague, or to perform some action in Pharaoh's presence.  While some commentators suggest that Moshe was feeling either hesitant or frustrated, the text provides no hint of this on Moshe's part.  The Ramban wrestles with the fact that what Moshe is to say to Pharaoh is missing, and suggests that this is  the Torah's manner in relating information – since we hear what Moshe said to Pharaoh, we can deduce what Hashem commanded Moshe, and relating that information would have been unnecessary.  However, the Ramban's argument only highlights the discrepancy with previous plagues, where the commands were given in full, and their fulfillments shortened.  Why does the Torah here begin the command, only to abruptly stop?[3]   


We also note the unexpected criticism that emanates from Pharaoh's advisors.  While the Torah already recorded that "those who feared Hashem" protected their property during the plague of hail, we have not yet witnessed a public break between Pharaoh and his advisors.  Until now, Pharaoh's control over them has appeared absolute.  Suddenly, we find them berating Pharaoh publicly; a noted humiliation for the previously unquestioned despot[4].  Several commentators explain Moshe's hasty exit from the Divine court in verse 6 and their reentry in verse 8 as an attempt to allow them one final attempt to persuade Pharoah to concede:


"And why [did Moshe and Aharon leave uninvited]?  They saw them [the advisors] turning to each other is discomfort, for they believed Moshe's words.  Therefore, they left suddenly, so that the advisors could convince Pharaoh to repent."  (Shemot Rabba 13:4, Ramban, Kli Yakar)


While their efforts were tragically unsuccessful, the division between monarch and subjects was now public.


            Finally, we note that the object of the Divine command to Moshe has changed.  Until now, Moshe's primary purpose was to convince Pharoah to release the people.  Each visit was a sincere attempt to demonstrate to Pharaoh the error of his ways.  No longer.  Pharaoh's heart has been forever hardened, his fate irrevocably sealed[5].  Now, Hashem directs His attention to the soon to be freed Jewish people.   The Torah states that Moshe should come to Pharaoh "so that I might show these My signs in the midst of them; and so that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son's son, what I wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; and you will know that I am Hashem."  From here until the final exodus, all that occurs is to impress the Jewish people for eternity. 


B.                 The Abrabanel's Connection


The Abrabanel begins his commentary on our parasha with our question: What makes the plague of locusts so significant that it deserves to begin a separate parasha?  He suggests that the last three plagues are so ominous that as opposed to until now, when Pharaoh and his servants only experienced a sense of panic once the plague had occurred, now they feel terror even before the plague's onset.  Therefore, for the first time, Pharaoh is willing to negotiate the conditions of the departure of the Jewish people.   He then suggests a second reason for linking the final three plagues together:


And the second reason is that the plague of locusts, the plague of darkness, and the plague of the killing of the firstborn all come from the air; and all darkness the earth.  By the plague of locusts, it states, "And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.  For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened."  By the plague of darkness, it states, "And there was darkness over all the land of Egypt."  By the plague of the first-born, it states, "It was in the middle of the night" – "He placed them in darkness, like the eternally dead (paraphrasing Eikha 3:6)."  For this reason, the Torah grouped the last three parashiyot together in a separate parasha.


While the Abrabanel's connection is interesting, it appears superficial to our story.  What significance does the lighting/timing of the plague have to its effect?   We noted above that one of the outcomes of the plague of locusts was to isolate Pharaoh from his advisors.  A rereading of Hashem's opening command to Moshe, "Come in to Pharaoh" reinforces this effect.  Two antagonists confront each other - Moshe, Hashem's humble servant, and Pharaoh, ruler and deity over Egypt.  Their final clashes are dramatic – after the plague of darkness Pharaoh threatens Moshe with death should he appear again before him; while after the death of Egypt's firstborn, the Midrash reduces Pharaoh to aimlessly wandering the streets of Goshen, calling out Moshe's name, while the delighted slaves mock him and provide him with incorrect directions.  All this, states the Torah, so that Hashem can "execute judgment against all of the gods of Egypt" (12:12).  To the Egyptians, their king was a living deity.  His patron among the Egyptian pantheon was the most central god Ra - the sun god, who created the world and rode the sun-chariot daily across the sky.  Suddenly, the Torah's emphasis on darkness attains greater significance.  For the first seven plagues, while Pharaoh ostensibly maintained free will and could still choose to release the Jewish people, both Moshe and Hashem treat him with respect.  From here onwards, they dedicate themselves to his ruin.  As the light of his patron god disappears, so too do Pharaoh's remaining vestiges of power.  It is no wonder then that the traditional parasha division chooses the plague of locusts to begin this new stage of redemption. A stage where redemption takes second to triumph and Egyptian acknowledgment of God's sovereignty takes a back seat to the transmission of national pride to future generations of Jewish pride.


C.                 Returning to Darkness, Restoring Light


Chassidic thought explains the significance of the darkness differently.  The beginning of the Torah describes how God's first creative act was to bring light into the world.  Until now, the sun and the moon gave light regularly, according to the Divine command. Suddenly, G-d overturns nature itself to punish the Egyptians.  Indeed, the plagues represent nothing less than the dismantling of creation itself:


For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth" (Shemot 31:17). Were they created in six days? Surely, it was already stated: "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth" (Tehillim 33:6). Rather, to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created in six days, and to give good reward to the righteous who maintain the world that was created in six days. (Pesikta Rabbati 23)

My master and grandfather, of blessed memory would say that the ten plagues correspond to the ten ma'amarot (verbal act of creation), and through that, they later became the ten dibrot. For it is stated that the world was created with ten ma'amarot. What does the verse teach… in order to exact punishment from the wicked and give reward to the righteous. Certainly to exact punishment from the wicked refers to Pharaoh, as it is written: "And I and my nations are wicked." And to give reward to the righteous – this refers to the Torah that is called good, because it was given to the people of Israel. (Sefat Emet, Vaera, 1835)


Many commentators attempt to align each of the ten plagues with a corresponding ma'amar (i.e. – see the Maharal of Prague's alignment in Gevurat Hashem, ch. 57).  The common thread among their approaches is that just as the Torah began with God's creation of the universe and the division of the world into clear, identifiable categories, (light vs. dark, water vs. land, different beings according to each one's kind and place); the plagues represent more than just the destruction of Egypt's resources, but the very unraveling of the tapestry of creation.  All previous known boundaries disappear - frogs and wild animals roam the land, water becomes blood, and the sky rains fire.  As day becomes darkness, we sense that the very light that began creation has slipped away.  At the end, only Hashem himself remains.  With this approach, the Exodus has become something more than the release of a people from bondage.  As the Jews leave Egypt, we sense that even creation itself is restarting.  How the Jewish people take advantage of this opportunity becomes the rest of the story.


[1] As to the history of the division of the Torah's text into parashiyot, we know that the public reading of the Torah began with the return to Eretz Yisrael after the Babylonian exile (see Nechemya 8).  However, the annual reading cycle as practiced by the Jewish exile community in Babylonia was different from the custom of the remaining Jews of Palestine. The Babylonian Talmud makes one oblique reference to the triennial cycle: 'The people of the west (i.e. the Jews of Eretz Yisrael) who complete [the reading] (sic.) of the Torah in three years.' Ultimately, the custom to read the entire Torah in one year prevailed.  While Benjamin of Tudela mentioned Egyptian congregations that took three years to read the Torah as late as 1170, Maimonides could safely observe in the Mishneh Torah that, "the widespread practice in all of Israel is to complete the Torah in one year. There are some who complete the Torah in three years, but this is not a widespread practice."  The division of parashiyot found in the modern-day Torah scrolls of all Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite communities is based upon the systematic list provided by Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuza and Torah Scrolls, Chapter 8. Maimonides based his division of the parashiyot for the Torah on the Masoretic text of the Aleppo Codex. Though initially doubted by Umberto Cassuto, this has become the established position in modern scholarship.

[2] My first Tanach teacher at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, would strengthen the question as follows:  We know that according to the Haggada, after the recital of the Ten Plagues, we recite Rabbi Yehuda's acronym for the plagues DTz"Ch, AD"Sh, BACh"B, which divides the plagues into three groups of 3 followed by the final blow, the killing of the firstborn.  Many commentators point out the thematic and literary links that justify this division.  Between boils and hail would have been the ideal place to conclude the previous parasha.  Why did those who established the parasha divisions choose to violate this tradition?

[3] Rabbi Ezra Bick develops this thinking much further in his article "Bo," available in the parasha section in the VBM archives at

[4]  The Kli Yakar suggests that this rift between Pharaoh and his people answers our original question: What makes the plague of locusts so significant that it deserves to begin a separate parasha?

[5] A fact poignantly described in the text through Pharaoh's courtiers, who plead with him to release the Jewish people before everything is lost, to no avail. 


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