This week's parsha
The Kabbalah of Darkness
The ninth of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt was the plague of Darkness: “No person could see his brother, nor could any person rise from his place, for three days; but for the children of Israel, there was light in all their dwellings" (Exodus 10:23).
The physical plague of darkness had its root in a spiritual darkness, which can be defined as the absence of G‑d’s revealed presence. In discussing the spiritual origin of this plague the Midrash cites two opinions: Rabbi Nechemia taught that the darkness originated in the regions of geheinom (purgatory); Rabbi Yehudah taught that it originated in the celestial spheres.
The Chassidic masters explain the difference between these two forms of darkness:
1) The classic dark, associated with geheinom, acts as a curtain. When a curtain is drawn across a window it obstructs the sunlight and leaves the room thoroughly in the dark. This is the darkness of geheinom, where G‑d’s presence is entirely concealed.
2) The celestial dark is primordial; it predates all light. G‑d’s essence is beyond revelation. When he chose to reveal himself he radiated outwards so that his light would become visible, but beyond the light there was still dark. That dark is the domain of his essence and the essence doesn’t require light. Comfortably ensconced within itself, it doesn’t lack luminescence but transcends it.
In other words, the classic dark conceals G‑d’s light, whereas the celestial dark reveals G‑d’s essence, which transcends all light.
Projected On the Human Level
These two forms of spiritual dark, when experienced on the human level, elicit two very different reactions. The classic dark is the concealment of light. Left in the spiritual dark, the human yearns for G‑dliness because his condition craves light.
Celestial dark, on a human level, has a negative spiritual affect. Celestial dark is transcendence of light. Because the human does not transcend light he experiences such transcendence as contentment with dark. If subjected to such contentment for a prolonged period of time he may completely forget the virtue of G‑dliness.
Sightlessness and Immobility
The physical darkness affected Egyptians in two ways. The first was that "no person could see his brother" and the second was that "no person could rise from his place." The Midrash teaches that this plague lasted for six days. For the first three days the Egyptians were unable to see each other but they were still able to rise and move about. During the last three days the darkness intensified to the point that it paralyzed even simple movement. They could no longer even rise from their place.
These two 3-day period in the Plague of Darkness can be seen as corresponding to the two types of darkness discussed above. During the first 3-day period, the Egyptians experienced the classic spiritual darkness in which one feels deprived of light and pines for it. During this time they could not see their brother. In this sense, their brother is a metaphor for G‑d's light. They wanted to behold his light, but the dark prevented them from doing so. During the second 3-day period the darkness was of the celestial form. They grew content with the dark: no longer did they pine for their 'brother,' but rather they could not rise from their place. 'Their place' is a metaphor for their contentment with the dark; they couldn’t rise out of this contentment to appreciate the value of G‑d’s light.
The Two Antidotes
What were the Children of Israel doing while the Egyptians languished in the darkness?
The Midrash cites two purposes that the plague of darkness served:
1) Many Jews didn’t want to leave Egypt, so G‑d decreed that they would die there. Egyptians remained unaware of this shameful fact because these Jews died and were buried during the period of darkness.
2) The darkness provided an opportunity for Jews to circulate in Egyptian homes to determine the location of the valuables that they would later borrow. When Jews later asked to borrow these items, Egyptians could not deny owning them because the Jews would unerringly point to where they were hidden.
According to one of the commentaries, both reasons are true. During the first three days of the plague the Jews buried their dead and during the second three days they explored Egyptian homes.
On a metaphoric level these two pursuits constitute antidotal activities to the two forms of darkness described above.
1) The antidote to darkness that conceals light is to tear away the concealing 'curtain' and step into the pool of light. During the first three days, while Egyptians pined for the light the Jews stepped into it. The Jews clearly distinguished dark from light and the wicked from the righteous. They understood why their brothers died and quickly buried them to remove traces of wickedness from among them.
2) The antidote to a darkness that is content with being dark is to peer into the dark and identify its divine root; to recognize that the fact that man is content to be without light is a reflection of the fact that his creator transcends light. During the second three days, while Egyptians remained trapped in the 'place' of contented darkness, the Jews peered into dark hidden places and discovered 'gold' and 'silver' treasures. In the language of Kabbalah, gold and silver represent love for G‑d. The Jews peered into the darkness and discovered their love for its hidden divine roots.