The Enigmatic Plague
When we hit rock bottom, the only thing that can get us out of this darkness is to recognize that we are totally helpless and only G-d can extricate us from our emotional prison.
Of all the Ten Plagues, the plague of darkness is arguably the most enigmatic.
According to Rashi, who cites earlier Midrashic sources, the darkness of this plague was not conventional darkness. Ordinarily, when there is no light it is dark. Darkness itself is not an independent phenomenon but the absence of light. The plague of darkness was an exception to this rule.
In the description of the plague of darkness, the Torah adds on the words: “…even darkness which can be felt.” What exactly does that mean? Rashi explains: “for it [the darkness] was doubled, redoubled, and thick to the degree that it was tangible.”
In other words, the darkness of that plague was unlike any other darkness, which is merely the absence of light. In any other dark situation, if one were to light a candle the darkness would obviously disappear. Not so during the plague of darkness. The Midrash states that no introduction of light into their homes would have made any difference.
What’s the Purpose?
One may therefore ask why G-d had to perform this miracle that darkness should be an independent substance and not merely an absence of light. Wouldn’t it have sufficed if the darkness they experienced was a conventional form of darkness; the absence of light. That too could have terrified the Egyptians and caused them great mental anguish.
Furthermore, we know that the Ten Plagues were not just designed to get Pharaoh to agree to let the Israelites go. One plague would have sufficed for that, if not for the fact that G-d hardened his heart. We can also not posit that the Ten Plagues were intended as a punishment for the Egyptians enslavement of the Israelites. If that was the sole reason for the plagues G-d did not need these plagues specifically and would not have needed 10 separate plagues. One devastating plague would have been sufficient for their punishment.
Rather, the Ten Plagues were ten steps in educating the Egyptians and the children of Israel about G-d, His power and His relationship with the children of Israel.
The question thus arises: What lesson can we learn from this plague of darkness in general, and that the darkness was palpable and substantive, in particular.
Another question: When we survey the order of the Ten Plagues a pattern emerges. The first few plagues did not cause bodily harm to the Egyptians. The first three plagues (Blood, Frogs and Lice) were a terrible nuisance; the fourth plague (mixture of wild animals) generated fear and the fifth plague (pestilence) caused a substantial loss of property. The next plague of boils was the first plague to directly afflict the bodies of the Egyptians. This was followed by hail which was even more destructive of property and caused the death of those who remained outside. This was followed by the plague of locust which destroyed their food supply, which would inevitably lead to mass starvation and death.
The question thus is: why were all these plagues followed by the plague of darkness? All it did, seemingly, was to instill fear and terror into the hearts of the Egyptians. It would have made more sense to have introduced this plague after the fourth plague which was also designed to instill fear and panic.
The Darkness of Depression
To answer these questions it would serve us well to view the plague of darkness also as a metaphor for the feeling of darkness associated by depression. When a person is down in the dumps and loses an interest in life they can be said to be in a dark place.
The great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, once remarked, “While there is no sin to be depressed, depression can lead to all sins.”
When we lose interest in life because of depression, we are vulnerable and we lose the power of resistance against all the temptations out there. We cannot muster the energy to meet all the formidable challenges that come our way.
Moreover, because we are in a depressed state we will look for anything that might lift our spirits. In the worst case scenario, this can lead us to engage in immoral activity or to resort to drugs and alcohol, thinking that the temporary pleasure we will experience will take away or distract us from some of our gloom. In the best case scenario, we will seek to drown out our depression with the pursuit of perpetual entertainment.
Our Sages had a better prescription to deal with certain forms of depression.
[To be sure, depression that is chemically generated may have to be treated medically. And other forms of depression my need certain forms of therapy administered by professionals. But, whatever treatments are necessary, they will be more successful if they are augmented with spiritual therapy.]
One of the best ways of getting out of emotional darkness is to introduce light. As our Sages declared, “a little light can dispel a lot of darkness.” And the most powerful light is the divine light of Torah and Mitzvos. Torah and Mitzvos give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Feelings of depression are often caused by a feeling that our lives are empty. When we know that we have a purpose and we can fulfill our purpose by following the dictates of the Torah, it will take us out fo the dark place we may be in.
Doubled and Redoubled Darkness
However, this is all true when the depression is engendered by the absence of light. This is a form of depression that lends itself to recovery. The mere fact that we know that the light exists and is accessible to us gives us hope and alleviates some or all of the emotional pain of depression. The mere recognition that the cause of our depression is the lacuna in our life that we can fill is half of the cure.
But, there is a radically different and more profound form of darkness and depression represented by the plague of darkness. It is a state of darkness that doesn’t lend itself to any solution. The darkness is so dense that introducing light into this darkness will be futile because the darkness is not the absence of light; it is a formidable entity unto itself. It is best described as being locked in a prison cell and the key was thrown away. There is no hope of ever being released. It would seem that there is no cure for that type of depression.
The purpose of this plague was to let the Egyptians have a taste of their own medicine. They so depressed and crushed the Jewish people that they couldn’t even listen to Moses’ message of redemption.
The penultimate plague of darkness was indeed the most painful in one significant way. As bad and painful as the preceding eight plagues were, the Egyptians were not thrown into utter depression and despair until the plague of darkness.
This plague of darkness and depression, which is liked to prison, is alluded to in the Psalms (Psalm 107:10):
“Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, prisoners of affliction and iron.”
Living in Galus-exile can replicate the plague of darkness, when we feel that our situation is helpless and hopeless. We cannot extricate ourselves from feelings of gloom and doom. In many instances even introducing the light of Torah and Mitzvos into our lives does not get us out of this darkness. Is there no solution?
The answer to this challenge is provided for in the continuation of the psalm:
“And they cried out to G-d in their distress; from their straits He saved them. He took them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and He broke open their bonds.”
When we hit rock bottom, the only thing that can get us out of this darkness is to recognize that we are totally helpless and only G-d can extricate us from our emotional prison. And we cry out to Him: “ad masai.” How much longer do we have to dwell in the prison and darkness of exile?!
G-d will surely respond to our powerful cries and bring us Moshiach and the Final Redemption.
Then we will express gratitude to G-d, expressed in the next verse:
“They shall give thanks to G-d for His kindness, and for His wonders to the children of men.
The gratitude we will express then will be unprecedented because it is in response to having been liberated from the deepest darkness of exile and a radical transformation from the deepest darkness to the most powerful light.