What is so punishing about darkness?

This Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman

To turn from everything to one face
is to find oneself face to face with everything
- Elizabeth Bowen

In Parshat Bo, we meet the final plagues of the ten meted out to the Egyptians. Before the last plague of the killing of the first-born males in the Egyptian households, God instructs Moses to deliver one penultimate punishment: darkness - choshech.
But this darkness is not merely the dark of the night. It is called choshech afela - a thick darkness. It is distinct in its texture, its suffocating depth, and the ramifications for its sufferers:


כא  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, נְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ

כב  וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, עַל-הַשָּׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי חֹשֶׁךְ-אֲפֵלָה בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים

כג  לֹא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו--שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וּלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר, בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם

Exodus 10

21 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, 
darkness that can be touched.'

22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven, and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days;

23 they could not see one another; no one rose from her place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

The biblical text tells us: “va’yamesh choshech” - it was a tangible dark, a dark that was so intense and enveloping in its presence that one could reach out and touch it. Various rabbinic commentaries associate this darkness with the dark of Gehenna (realm of the wicked) and the primordial darkness that pervaded before the “let there be light” declaration of Genesis.
The consequence of this darkness, as highlighted in the verses, is revealing: a person could not see his fellow person, and no one was able to move from her place.
This darkness had a deeply rupturing effect. It fractured the comforting threads binding one friend to another. It brought isolation and aloneness in place of connection and community. And the result was paralysis. With these foundational elements ripped away, no one could move.
Read from a spiritual or psychological perspective, this darkness can easily be understood to be depression or despair, for the description in the text is so apt.
A personal plague of suffocating blackness that destroys your human capacity to look the other in the face, to feel empathy and connection, to feel comforted by another’s hand, another’s eyes holding yours.
When these stabilizing structures are torn away, paralysis of many kinds - spiritual, emotional, mental - take their place.
The ability of one to see, really see, another person is the bedrock of all that is important. It is the ground on which compassion, joy, love, growth, and tikkun of all kinds are seeded
Mark Nepo, poet and philosopher, writes movingly of this essential ingredient of our humanity:

It seems that difficulty is woven into the design of life, so that we need the presence of others to help us through and bring each other alive. The bridge of our well-being is often made visible when the stranger, the fellow, the completing other jars us to inhabit our life.
During the last few years, I have been jarred alive by the silence of a friend as we hiked up a mountain at sunrise with her dogs. And I was yoked into the unnamed center of my soul when holding my father’s hand, as he slept in a wheelchair months before his death.
And just last week, I was stopped by the twilight as it made the skeleton of a tree dance without moving...We have to go from here to there, but the life — the aliveness we treasure, the company that matters — is always in the tenderness of each step.
It is in each step that we find ourselves and each other. It is in each step that we hold each other up.
It remains a powerful mystery that when I look deeply enough into you, I find me, and when you dare to hear my fear in the recess of your heart, you recognize it as your secret which you thought no one else knew.
And that unexpected Wholeness that is more than each of us, but common to all — that moment of unity is the atom of God.”

Perhaps this plague of darkness came near the very end, right before the infliction of physical death, to remind the Egyptians - and remind us - that spiritual darkness and the profound dislocation that results from a rip in the fabric of our humanness can be nearly as catastrophic as the loss of physical life.
A Kavannah to Practice:
In the week ahead, let us try to acknowledge the hands that hold us in many forms: a listening ear, a gesture of support, the gift of total presence and attention from another, love shown in a thousand small ways. And if we can do this with a bit more attentiveness this week, it will be our answer to the plague of darkness and our effort to reach through its thickness towards someone who might be reaching towards us.

Shabbat Shalom