Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Bo – The Mystery of Darkness

There is an obvious question about the plague of darkness that arises with no other plague – why didn’t the Egyptians just stop it?

When locusts are swarming in the sky, or hail is pelting the ground, human beings are helpless. You cannot trap every frog that infests the land. But we all know how to counter darkness – light a candle.

A deep answer comes from a famed Sephardi commentator and kabbalist. The Or Hahayim says the darkness was not in the atmosphere; it was in the Egyptians. The Egyptians could not truly see those who were not like themselves.

In 1915, the philosopher William James wrote an essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” The essay concerns “the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”

The Rabbis comment that the blindness was the “thickness of a gold dinar” – that is, a gold coin. (The Torah Temima says this was like a cataract over the eyes of the Egyptians, keeping faith with the idea of darkness being an attribute of the Egyptians, not the atmosphere.)

This reminds us how easily wealth can blind us to the plight of another. Several years ago, I wrote about this phenomenon: : In studies, people in big cars are more likely to ignore pedestrians, and the wealthy give a smaller percentage of their money to the poor than those with far less.

This is not because rich people are bad, since you can create this bias artificially with monopoly money in a board game. Rather, wealth insulates people from need and from dependence. The fortunate must battle against the tendency to allow the gold dinar to blot out the suffering of others. That is part of the mitzvah of tzedakah.

Wealth is not the only cause of indifference, of course. One’s own narcissism can prevent us from seeing the other. The Mishna fixes the time for morning prayer “when one recognizes the face of a friend.” We turn to God through acknowledging another human being.

The plague of darkness dramatized the extent to which people could not see each other – not because they were strangers, but because each one could not overcome self-absorption.

This is the darkness we fight. This is the light we must bring to the world each day.