Reflections of Redemption - Bo
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְ. וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַשָּׁמָיִם וַיְהִי חֹשֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָה בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים. לֹא רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו וְלֹא קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים וּלְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם. (שמות י, כא-כג)
Parshat Bo includes the last three plagues that Hashem unleashed on Egypt, (hinted at in the name of the parsha בא, in gematria 3), locusts, darkness and slaying of the firstborn. In this week’s shiur I would like to talk about מכת חשך, the plague of darkness.
This plague, compared to the other nine, is unique in many respects and the פשט of the psukkim describes only a very small part of what actually happened. It is as if HKB”H is “keeping us in the dark” and deliberately omitting a huge chunk of information. In this shiur I hope to “throw some light” on the parts that are “left out”. The facts are startling and terrifying.
Let’s begin with what the psukkim do tell us. From the פשט it appears that the plague only lasted 3 days, but the Midrash says that it was actually 6 days long. For the first three days the darkness was only visual – the Egyptians could not see anything. This was followed by an additional three days, during which, not only could they not see, but the darkness was tangible, it was a force that prevented movement. If someone was standing they remained standing for three days, if they were sitting, they could not get up – they were frozen in place.
What does the passuk mean when it says וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְ ? The word וְיָמֵשׁ is from the root מש meaning “move”, like when the Torah speaks about Yehoshua it says לֹא יָמִישׁ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֹהֶל, or in regards to the עמוד הענן it says לֹא יָמִישׁ עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן. This darkness involved movement (or lack thereof) and was not a darkness we are familiar with according to the laws of nature here on earth. Instead it was a “primordial” kind of darkness that existed on the first day of creation וחשך על פני תהום, the first time darkness is mentioned, in the second passuk in theTorah.
What the Torah recorded thousands of years ago in Egypt, was corroborated by scientific experiment at the turn of the last century. Until 1915 physicists believed that light travelled in a straight line, like a laser beam and obeyed Newton’s laws of physics. Then along came Einstein with his General Theory of Relativity and theorized that gravity bends light. If you have a mass with an enormous gravitational force, such as the sun, it alters the straight path of light, it bends it. Eddington confirmed this in 1919 when he photographed an eclipse of the sun and found that the position of the stars, whose light passed close to the sun, conflicted with Newton’s physics. This then led to the theory of black holes, regions with such intense gravity, that it not only deflects the light, “it swallows it up” and prevents light from escaping. Around the same time, in 1903 physicists Fox & Hull proved that light also exerts force on objects. It is very likely that these light associated forces, supernaturally intensified during מכת חושך, were those that prevented the Egyptians from moving.
Unlike the Egyptians, who couldn’t see and couldn’t move, for Am Yisrael there was אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם. It doesn’t say that there was light in Goshen, but anywhere Am Yisrael went, for them there was light and there was movement. The Midrash describes how, during מכת חושך, Am Yisrael went around the houses of the Egyptians to map out all the booty that they would collect when they left Egypt. In the same room, an Egyptian was in darkness, while a Jew had light, and not just regular light, but a more intense form of light, almost like X-rays, that they could see gold, silver and other treasures, hidden in closets, under floor boards etc. Later when they left Egypt and asked for the gold and silver, the Egyptians said “What gold? What silver?” the Jews could answer – “In the third drawer on the left!”
Following מכת חושך Pharaoh says to Moshe “You will not see my face again”, meaning – “do not come here again” and indeed, this is what happened, Moshe never saw Pharaoh again.
Thus ends the description of מכת חושך. If it were not for a “sidebar” (a ד"א) in Rashi on the passuk , וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם (שמות יג, יח) from next week’s parsha Beshalach, so “innocuous”, you could almost miss it, we would think that all that happened during מכת חושך was what we described above. But then you re-read Rashi and you realize he has dropped a bombshell of apocalyptic proportions that alters our entire perception of what the exile in Egypt really was. דָּבָר אַחֵר: "חֲמֻשִׁים" – אֶחָד מֵחֲמִשָּׁה יָצְאוּ, וְאַרְבָּעָה חֲלָקִים מֵתוּ בִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יְמֵי אֲפֵלָה. Rashi says that only one in five Jews actually left Egypt in the Exodus and that the remainder perished during מכת חושך.
Rashi, like many of his other perushim, bases this on a Midrash, but the original source is from a נבואה of יחזקאל -
א) וַיְהִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית בַּחֲמִשִׁי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ בָּאוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת ה' וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לְפָנָי. ב) וַיְהִי דְבַר ה' אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. ג) בֶּן אָדָם דַּבֵּר אֶת זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כֹּה אָמַר ה' א-לוקים הֲלִדְרֹשׁ אֹתִי אַתֶּם בָּאִים חַי אָנִי אִם אִדָּרֵשׁ לָכֶם נְאֻם ה' א-לוקים. ד) הֲתִשְׁפֹּט אֹתָם הֲתִשְׁפּוֹט בֶּן אָדָם אֶת תּוֹעֲבֹת אֲבוֹתָם הוֹדִיעֵם. ה) וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר ה' א-לוקים בְּיוֹם בָּחֳרִי בְיִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לְזֶרַע בֵּית יַעֲקֹב וָאִוָּדַע לָהֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לָהֶם לֵאמֹר אֲנִי ה' א-לקיכם. ו) בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נָשָׂאתִי יָדִי לָהֶם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתִּי לָהֶם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ צְבִי הִיא לְכָל הָאֲרָצוֹת. ז) וָאֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיו הַשְׁלִיכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם אַל תִּטַּמָּאוּ אֲנִי ה' א-לקיכם. ח) וַיַּמְרוּ בִי וְלֹא אָבוּ לִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלַי אִישׁ אֶת שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינֵיהֶם לֹא הִשְׁלִיכוּ וְאֶת גִּלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם לֹא עָזָבוּ וָאֹמַר לִשְׁפֹּךְ חֲמָתִי עֲלֵיהֶם לְכַלּוֹת אַפִּי בָּהֶם בְּתוֹךְ אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. ט) וָאַעַשׂ לְמַעַן שְׁמִי לְבִלְתִּי הֵחֵל לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הֵמָּה בְתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר נוֹדַעְתִּי אֲלֵיהֶם לְעֵינֵיהֶם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. (יחזקאל כ, א-ט)
This prophecy occurs during the seventh year of exile of המלך יהויכין, prior to the destruction of Bayit Rishon. The part that concerns us begins with the 5th passuk. When you read Rashi on these psukkim, it brings to light a hidden part of the story of יציאת מצרים that very few are familiar with.
HKB”H reveals to יחזקאל that even before Moshe witnessed the Burning Bush, HKB”H appeared in a נבואה to his brother Aharon who related it to Am Yisrael. In the prophecy HKB”H reveals himself to Am Yisrael and promises that He will take them out of Egypt and bring them to a land of milk and honey. HKB”H tells Am Yisrael to cast off their שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיים and not to defile themselves בְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם. But they defied HKB”H and did not do as He commanded, and HKB”H resolved to wipe out those sinners during מכת חושך.
The “conventional wisdom” of the story of יציאת מצרים states that it all began with Moshe, who went back to Egypt, showed the signs, said פקד פקדתי and got the ball rolling, but in reality it began long before that.
There is a מחלוקת in the Midrash what the numbers were – 1 in 5, 1 in 50 or 1 in 500. Rashi brings the lowest estimate 1 in 5. According to the highest estimate only 0.2% of Am Yisrael left Egypt! According to that, if 600,000 left, then 300 million Jews died in Egypt (and that is just the males over the age of 20) during מכת חושך. This would mean that in six days, not only did Am Yisrael have to go spy out the homes for spoils, but that each person also had to bury 500 dead - digging 83 graves a day! Perhaps the unfeasibility of such a thing brought Rashi to opt for the 1 in 5 number.
Chazal say that in Egypt Am Yisrael had fallen to the 49th level of טומאה and if they had remained there a moment longer they would have been irredeemable.
From the above, a different picture starts to emerge of the reality in Egypt prior to the גאולה. We always imagine that all of Am Yisrael were slaves in Egypt, manufacturing and lugging bricks, building Pitom and Raamses. Even according to the low estimate of Rashi, 1 in 5, the total population of Am Yisrael in Egypt was somewhere around 15 million. When you compare that to what historians estimate the Egyptian population was at the time - around 3 million – we see why the Egyptians were so intimidated by Am Yisrael, they were outnumbered almost five to one!
HKB”H relates to יחזקאל that He commanded Am Yisrael to detach themselves from the impurities of Egypt. If all of Am Yisrael were oppressed slaves lugging bricks, why would they become embroiled in the idolatry of Egypt, surely they would reject the culture of their oppressors? The answer is that it was inescapable.
Chazal explains what עבודת פרך means – פה רך. Pharaoh enslaved Am Yisrael in the beginning with something enticing, something attractive, something seemingly harmless, but little by little Am Yisrael were drawn in until they were trapped.
To imagine how such a thing could happen, one needs look no further than the Holocaust. It started with wearing a yellow Magen David, with legislation curtailing employment of Jews and limiting their movement. The vast majority believed that it was something temporary, that it would blow over, but it got progressively more severe, little by little, until they were being marched off cattle cars and into the gas chambers, probably wondering unbelievingly how it got to this.
But why look back 80 years? Look at us today, living in modern western society. We are offered enticing prospects – Why cook when you can buy food almost ready to eat? Why kasher a chicken when you can buy it ready kashered and portioned out, neatly wrapped in shrink wrap? Why fix a microwave when it costs less to dispose of and buy a new one than fixing it? Why settle for a HD TV screen when you can have a 4K? Why pay for that car now when you can pay it off in 120 “easy” payments? Why indeed? And a million other tiny hooks that draw you in, little by little, until you look back and wonder “How did I get here?” (usually during a 3hr power failure with the Wifi router not functioning). Make no mistake, we are enslaved and most of us accept it willingly and those who recognize the dangers, find it impossible to escape “If I don’t run my business like the competition, they will shut me down!”
Similarly Am Yisrael were reduced from an elevated status in Eretz Goshen, to being whipped and forced to forage for straw to make their own bricks - or their children would be cemented into the foundations. Husbands were separated from their wives. Family members were split up and dispersed all over the country. Subjected to forced labor. No time to teach the children, what children? They were 300 miles away. Remind you of something? Try the Soviet Union and the KGB! How many Jews managed to retain their faith in the Soviet Union? A tiny minority of Refuseniks, like Shevet Levi in Egypt. The rest didn’t even know they were Jewish after concerted oppression and brainwashing. And they reached the 49th level of טומאה.
Not all the Jews were subjected to forced labor. Many enjoyed “elevated” status from their brothers, given “perks” to help the Egyptians perpetuate their slavery. Many even reached high office and became for all intents and purposes – Egyptians.
And then suddenly HKB”H sends a prophecy through Aharon – “There is hope, you will be redeemed!” And the question everyone was asking was - Redeemed from what? OK, we are working really hard and life is tough, but it will blow over, it is really only in the last 86 years we’ve been slaves. This Pharaoh will die or be deposed and then we will go back to Goshen, it is only temporary, it will pass. And are things really so bad? We eat fish almost every day. We have one day off a week (Moshe instituted this when he told Pharaoh it would improve production – Shabbat the Jews rested. This is why we say ישמח משה במתנת חלקו). Things could be worse. And after a long day we get one hour free to watch Netflix! And who says he is a prophet? Aharon could be making the whole thing up.
And, big surprise - only 1 in 500 connected with the prophecy. The other 499 continued watching Netflix and eating salmon. Yes, life is not easy, but things could be worse.
And they did get worse. Moshe came and told Pharaoh to free Am Yisrael and suddenly the Egyptians were no longer giving Am Yisrael straw, they had to forage all over the country for straw to make bricks and still keep up their quotas. Moshe was devastated, “I showed them the signs, I gave them the code words פקד פקדתי and they will not listen” – מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. Those that are assimilated and hold high office – they lack רוח, they have forgotten the faith of their fathers. Those that are forced laborers simply want to survive the day - they cannot contemplate hifalutin concepts like redemption, land of milk and honey.
The game changer was the Ten Plagues. It was like that 3hr power failure with no Wifi. It rocked the perception. Blood, Frogs, Lice …… Locusts. And then, one before the end, HKB”H says “Decide! Are you with me or not?”
Am Yisrael were at the lowest level of טומאה, they were teetering on a hair’s breadth! Even the slightest breath could push them this way or that. And HKB”H says מי לה' אלי – choose! And only 1 in 500 (if it makes you feel better, 1 in 5) chose right. The other 499 decided to fall over the brink.
When you think of it like that, it doesn’t sound much like the great victory we picture it to be – ובני ישראל יוצאים ביד רמה. Only a tiny fraction enjoyed that victory, they had to bury 80% (or 99.8%) of their brothers, sisters, fathers and children during מכת חושך.
The Maharal (גבורות ה', פרק ג) says we should not mourn those who died during מכת חושך, because the moment they made the conscious choice, to not be part of Am Yisrael, they were not Am Yisrael any more, they were Egyptians and we do not mourn the Egyptians who died in the Ten Plagues or in ים סוף. HKB”H could not let them live – as Egyptians - because it would be a חילול ה'.
The passuk says וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, inferring that only 1 in 5 males left Egypt, but that ratio did not apply to the women. It is very likely that the population that left Egypt was “female heavy”, as was the population of Am Yisrael who entered Eretz Yisrael after 40 years in the desert, where the men who participated in חטא העגל and חטא המרגלים perished, but the women who didn’t survived.
Why davka choose מכת חושך to wipe them out? The פשט is that HKB”H did not want to cause a חילול ה', that the Egyptians would say Hashem was not able to take them out, so He killed them (like Mose’s טענה in the desert after עגל הזהב). It was all done under a veil of darkness. It is not mentioned at all explicitly in the psukkim Only if you dig deeper, in the נביאים and the Midrash, do you discover the real story.
However the real reason it happened during מכת חושך is deeper than that. It touches on our very perception of reality.
How do we know something is real? Is being able to see something with your own eyes sufficient to make it real? What exactly are we seeing? We are not seeing the object itself, we are seeing light reflected off the object.
There are two types of light. When HKB”H created the world, on the first day He created light. What kind of light was that? Chazal say that it was a Divine light, reserved for צדיקים לעתיד לבוא. After חטא עץ הדעת HKB”H saw that the world was not ready for this intensity of light, so He stored it away, האור הגנוז. Where did HKB”H store it? In the Torah (this is why the Torah is associated with light אורייתא, זוהר, etc.). The light we see with our physical eyes is another light, it is the light generated by lower luminaries, the sun, the moon and fire.
When we perceive an object with our eyes, we are in fact only seeing a reflection of the lower form of light bouncing off it. When we perceive a spiritual concept with our neshama, it is also a reflection, but it is a reflection of the אור הגנוז. We cannot experience the Divine light directly, it must be reflected and filtered so that the neshama, which is in a physical body, may tolerate it (this is the Kabbalistic concept of the עשר ספירות).
Similarly, there are two types of darkness. The first type is simply an absence of light, the second is a “force” of darkness that swallows up light, like a black hole.
This is what מכת חושך was. The first three days, were simply an absence of light. The last 3 days was a darkness that swallows light, you can shine light as much as you wish, it swallows it up. The first three days were Am Yisrael before the choice. It was the absence of light, they were denied light by שעבוד מצרים, teetering on a hair’s breadth at the 49th level of טומאה. All that was left was the glimmer of the faintest spark. ולכל בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם, what does it mean במושבתם? The gematria of במושבתם is "גּואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה", it is also the gematria of “יִשַׁי הוֹלִיד אֶת דָּוִד”. It was the start of a spark of the נבואה of Aharon that they would be redeemed. It was made infinitesimally stronger when Moshe arrived and even stronger during the first 8 plagues. HKB”H says “Now choose! What are you going to do with that spark? Are you going to nurture it or are you going to douse it?”
Only a small fraction chose to nurture that spark. The remainder doused it and they descended into the black hole that swallows light.
What does this mean for us today?
Chazal say that the גאולה לעתיד לבוא is going to follow a similar pattern to גאולת מצרים, except that it will be magnified tenfold. The miracles experienced during גאולת מצרים will look puny compared to those that will occur בגאולה לעתיד לבוא. Similarly we will reach a crossroads. HKB”H will make us choose. Those that choose the light of the Torah and אִישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיו הַשְׁלִיכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם אַל תִּטַּמָּאוּ will merit the גאולה and those that don’t will be irredeemably swallowed up by the black hole.
The גאולה is coming, whether we like it or not. We are nearing the end of האלף הששי. The clock is ticking. The only question is – “How strong will the spark be when HKB”H makes us choose?” Will it be strong enough to nurture and perpetuate, or will it be so weak that it will be doused?
If you compare the current reality to the reality of יציאת מצרים, the parallels are terrifying. The numbers, the stages….. Time is running out. For those of us for whom the choice is clear, we are like Shevet Levi in Egypt. We have an awesome responsibility to the millions for whom the choice is not so clear, it is a dying ember. We have a responsibility to not be like Noach and build our own תיבה in the knowledge that we will be saved.
We have the responsibility to build and strengthen our own תיבה, but also to fight for every neshama and nurture the spark. For all those who are בחזקת אנשי נינוה that do not know their left hand from their right, we have the responsibility to attract them, show them the beauty of the אור הגנוז and bring them back little by little from the brink. Even those רשעים who do know, but choose not to know, we also have a responsibility to try save them too. We do not know the strength of the spark within them, only HKB”H knows that. Outwardly they may appear to us to be רשעים גמורים by only HKB”H is בוחן לבבות. If they perform evil acts, we must counter with acts of love and let the love conquer the evil. Our primary mission right now as Am Yisrael is to focus on אהבת ישראל and increase acts of חסד.
Every spark we strengthen will be another neshama saved when the time of choice arrives and the clock is ticking.