2010-01-13 / Religion Column

‘But the Israelites had light in their dwellings’

RABBI LEWIS J. ERON Community Chaplain
Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16

According to the Book of Exodus, God manifested his divine power and authority by inflicting 10 plagues upon Egypt. Each plague brought incredible physical hardship and suffering—blood befouled the drinking water, hosts of frogs, flies, locusts and wild beasts terrorized the land, hail destroyed crops and murrain slaughtered livestock. Finally, during the 10th plague, the destructive power of the divine struck down the first born of every Egyptian household.

The biblical tradition pictures these terrible events as part of a cosmic battle between God, and the many Egyptian deities, led by their presumptuous man-god, the Pharaoh. While the Torah acknowledges Pharaoh’s claim to be the legitimate king of Egypt, Pharaoh challenged God by asserting control over God’s people, the Israelites, whom God originally brought to Egypt to save that nation from the devastation of famine. God responded to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites by attacking Egypt with a series of dreadful plagues, which brought great physical trauma upon Egypt and the Egyptians.

One plague, however, the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, stood out from the rest. Unlike the others, it caused no physical harm. Yet, it marked the turning point in the great struggle. The plague of darkness inflicted the spiritual and psychological punishment that finally shattered the resolve of the Egyptians.

Egypt was, and still is, a land blessed by sunlight. Clouds rarely cover its sky, and unlike the Land of Israel, which depends on rain, Egypt receives its water from the Nile. The ancient Egyptians saw the sun as the most powerful manifestation of divine power. The Pharaoh’s authority rested on his claim to be the sun god’s child. By plunging Egypt into darkness, God eclipsed their most potent deity and his earthly representation.

The physical darkness that lay on Egypt reflected spiritual darkness that filled the Egyptians’ hearts. A devastating series of disasters had upset the regular beat of life along the Nile. The plagues demonstrated Pharaoh’s inability to protect his own people. The darkness that surrounded them reflected the darkness in their souls. As they looked across their land, the Egyptians felt the despair of those already defeated.

However, while the Egyptians suffered from the darkness, our Israelite ancestors “enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Through the spiritual darkness that fell over Egypt, they sensed the presence of their God. The light of hope now filled their homes and villages. After all these years of suffering, their God was returning for them. No longer a community of frightened slaves, they were ready to do what seemed impossible—to declare their freedom by celebrating the Pesach in Egypt, by demanding their due from the Egyptians, and by marching off to a new life in a new land.

In the Torah’s long battle between God and Pharaoh, the ninth plague was God’s crucial victory. The darkness that fell over Egypt marked the breaking of the Egyptians’ spiritual resolve and the light that glowed in the dwellings of the Israelites reflected their growing hope and expectation. Although the Egyptians still had to experience one more devastating blow for their power to crumble, the struggle was essentially over. The Israelites stood at the edge of freedom and would soon proclaim their liberty. .

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