Parshat Bo describes the final three plagues that Hashem inflicted on the Egyptians, climaxing with the ninth and tenth plagues, darkness and the destruction of the Egyptian first born. As they went along, the plagues became increasingly harmful to the Egyptians, with mere horrible irritants such as blood and frogs giving way to lice, wild beasts, boils, hail and locusts, which seriously damaged the Egyptians’ bodies and property. Given this progression, what was it about the ninth plague, darkness – which seems to be just another inconvenient irritant for the Egyptians – that it deserved to be near the top of the list in terms of severity?
A similar question arises from the book of Yechezkel, where the Navi describes the punishments that Hashem will impose on the other nations in the time of Mashiach. In the description of what will happen to the Egyptians, Hashem says, “I will cover the heavens and darken their stars. I will cover the sun with a cloud and the moon will not radiate its light. I will darken all the bright lights of heaven because of you [the Egyptians], and I will place darkness upon your land” (Yechezkel 32:7-8). What is so special about darkness that it was selected as the punishment that will beset the evil Egyptians in the future?
A final question may be asked about Rashi to Shemot 10:22 (s.v. Vayehi Choshech Afeilah). Rashi wonders why darkness was brought as a plague, possibly bothered by our original question of the darkness’s relatively mild nature compared to the other plagues. He offers two explanations from the Midrash for the purpose of this plague. The first is that, there were some people among Bnei Yisrael who were so assimilated into the immoral Egyptian society that they deserved to die. Hashem created darkness, so that the Egyptians would not see Bnei Yisrael burying these evil Jews and think that the plague affected Bnei Yisrael as much as the Egyptians. Additionally, Hashem had promised Avraham that Bnei Yisrael would leave Egypt “with great wealth” (Bereshit 15:14). The darkness allowed Bnei Yisrael to enter the Egyptians’ homes so that they could find their valuables, later to ask to “borrow” them and leave with these possessions at the exodus. While this does explain the timing of the plague, it seems to undermine the basic nature of the Makkah. Was this plague a harsh punishment for the Egyptians, or did it occur for these practical reasons?
The answer to all these questions can be found in the way the Torah describes the plague of darkness, as explained by Rashi. The plague lasted six days. During the first three days, the darkness was so intense that the Egyptians could see nothing, no matter how many flames they lit. During the last three days, the darkness was even denser, and no Egyptian could arise from his place, nor could anyone standing sit down. During this latter period, the Egyptians were trapped and completely lost their freedom of movement. Now, it was Bnei Yisrael who had independent mobility, while the Egyptians were confined like slaves. Hashem punished the Egyptians Midah Keneged Midah (measure for measure). Moshe had previously asked for three days of freedom for Bnei Yisrael to worship Hashem, and Pharaoh refused. Now, the darkness enslaved the Egyptians for three days.
It was during the plague of darkness that Bnei Yisrael, as well as the Egyptians, realized that the slavery was finally over. Bnei Yisrael could easily have massacred the helpless Egyptians and escaped from Egypt during the plague. Hashem was testing them to see if they would leave Egypt on their own or wait for Moshe to command them to march to freedom, and they passed the test. During the period of darkness faced by the Egyptians, the Torah says, “but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings” (Shemot 10:24). While darkness may not have been the most brutal plague, it was perhaps the most crucial one, for the light that Bnei Yisrael enjoyed represented their freedom from bondage. It was, as Rashi indicated with the Midrashim he cites, a precursor to the Geulah. Thus, darkness earns its place as the penultimate Makkah and as the fate in store for Egypt in the time of Mashiach.
There are two other holidays in which light is mentioned and we celebrate freedom, namely Purim and Chanukah. The Megillah says after the story of the Jews’ victory over their enemies, “The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). This light represents our physical freedom from those who wanted to murder us. On Chanukah, we gained our spiritual freedom from those who tried to prevent our Torah observance, and we celebrate this freedom through the light of the Menorah. The light that Bnei Yisrael enjoyed during the plague of darkness represents both the physical and spiritual freedoms that they gained at the exodus. This is why this plague was so important. This is also why the first Mitzvah that Moshe taught Bnei Yisrael at the time of exodus was the blessing of the moon – we celebrate that which provides light during the darkness of night.