Parshat Bo

The second plague of Egypt


How do we learn from the Torah and our life experiences? What is the exodus from Egypt supposed to teach us? The Mussar teachers tell us that the Torah and our own experiences are specially crafted lessons, they are God speaking to us — and we need to listen.

Shemot (10: 21-22) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the heavens, that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.”

Robert Alter
A darkness one can feel: the force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness, is diminished by those who try to provide a naturalistic explanation of this plague (or, indeed, for any of the others)

Why might seeking natural explanations for the plagues reduce their impact?

Shemot Rabbah (14: 3) as cited by Rabbi Dessler
Where did the darkness come from? On this, there is a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemia. Rabbi Yehuda says it came from the darkness above–the darkness with which God shrouds His glory, as the verse says, “He makes darkness His secret place…” Rabbi Nehemia says it came from darkness below–the darkness of Gehinnom, as the verse says: “A land covered with darkness, the shadow of death, and disorder.”

Rabbi Dessler explains that there are two ways of understanding darkness. Darkness from above is deeply philosophical or mystical. It is the realization that we come from nothingness and the visible world is an illusion. Darkness from below is sin that darkens the potential of being alive.

Rabbi Dessler
The dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemia is about which aspect of darkness are we most likely to learn from. Is it: reflecting deeply on the essential nothingness of man, whose origin is nothingness? Or is it: considering the vanity of man’s actions and his failures to act appropriately?

I don’t think it will be a surprise which side Rabbi Dessler will go with, but why is considering these two perspectives important for understanding the Torah? What might it say to us when studying a particular middah (trait), like humility?

Shemot (13: 8-9)
And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, “For the sake of what the LORD did for me when I went out of Egypt.”

Rashbam (Miqra’ot Gedolot, Michael Carasik)
Because of what: Literally, “because of this” that God did miracles for me in Egypt — I observe this practice. Similarly, “This is the day that the LORD made me the chief cornerstone — let us exult and rejoice on it.”

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
The Mesillas Yesharim tells us that the very first step on a person’s journey to self perfection is for him “to clarify and verify his obligation in his world.” Every person has to feel that the world was hand tailored to his specific situation. The realization that the world was created for you, the redemption from Egypt was orchestrated with you in mind and the Torah was given specifically to you, should help you refrain from looking over your shoulder and rather focus on accomplishing your obligation in your world.

Do you agree that your spiritual journey is “to clarify and verify his obligation in his world”? What are other ways of understanding a spiritual journey?

Thinking that the world was hand-tailored for you might seem self-indulgent. Yet Rabbi Wolbe understands this as forcing you to face your responsibilities. Why might this be? Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa (rebbe of the Kotzker Rebbe) (As cited by Martin Buber) Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the worlds, “I am but dust and ashes.”

What does this add to Rabbi Wolbe’s words?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
To a [spiritually aware] person, it is as clear as the sun at noon that everything that happens in this world has a spiritual purpose. Its purpose may be to awaken us or teach us or challenge us. We can be quite sure that it has something to do with the purpose for which we were brought into this world, which is to sanctify God’s name and reveal His Greatness.

We are being taught to look at the Torah as a personal teaching — something that has meaning and resonance to our personal situation. In what ways does the redemption of Egypt, speak to your situation, today? Knowing that, what obligation does that create for you?