In this week’s parashah, we read the second part of our two-parashah account of the ten plagues. Last week’s parashah contained the first seven, ending with hail. This week, we pick up with the final three: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. As was the case in the previous parashah, with each subsequent set of plagues, Pharaoh is alarmed by the damage caused and declares freedom for the Israelites. But just as quickly as he sends them off, his heart is hardened—he recants his permission and they remain enslaved once again. It will not be until after the final plague that the Israelites will be able to leave Egypt. Indeed, it would seem that deadly final plague is the one that, for Pharaoh, is simply too much to bear.
Our sages, however, did not see the death of the firstborn as necessarily the worst and most devastating plague. In fact, several rabbinic texts point to darkness as the most painful of the ten plagues. The 18th-century Hassidic master Chiddushei HaRim explores this plague in his midrash:
A person did not see their neighbor, nor did anyone get up from their place for three days (Exodus 10:23)
There is no greater darkness than one in which “a person did not see their neighbor”—in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of their fellow human beings. When that happens, a person becomes stymied in their personal development as well—“nor did anyone get up from their place.”
Imagining the plague of darkness as the blindness and indifference of people to each other, our teacher suggests that we hinder our own blossoming when we engage in the oppression of the other. Just as the darkness plaguing Egypt was brought on by their poor treatment of strangers in their land, so too do we live in darkness when we are unable to really see our neighbors, or when we willfully blind ourselves to them. When we don’t truly see one another—by responding to someone’s needs, being attentive to their pain, and celebrating with them in their joy—we create the loneliest of societies. This loneliness may be the devastating plague our sages had in mind in this midrash.
This Shabbat, may we find a way to shed more light on that darkness (enough to cut through the complacency with which we sometimes treat those in our community) and may we find ongoing growth side by side, keeping the loneliness of that darkness at bay.