In the beginning of Parashat Bo, Hashem commands Moshe, “‘Neteih Yadecha Al HaShamayim, ViYhi Choshech Al Eretz Mitzrayim, VeYameish Choshech,’” “‘Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will become darker’” (Shemot 10:21). Rashi quotes a Midrash on the final words of the Pasuk, “VeYameish Choshech,” that the darkness was tangible, and that, during the three final days of plague, no Egyptian was able to move. Seforno adds that this darkness was so thick that it would not allow a candle to be lit or a ray of light to cut through it. Ralbag further explains that the darkness went into the Egyptians’ nostrils and mouths, making it hard for them to breathe. It was a miracle that they even survived.
The Midrash presents an interesting comparison explaining that the darkness was as thick as a coin. How can you measure the thickness of darkness? The Torah Temimah clarifies that this plague was not a visible darkness all around Egypt. Rather, the Egyptians were stricken with severe cataracts the size of a coin. While this solves the issue of size, it does not explain how such a cataract could make someone incapable of moving for three days.
HaKetav VeHaKabbalah states that when Hashem commanded, “ViYhi Choshech,” “And there shall be darkness,” a new, tangible darkness was created. On the last three days of the plague, Hashem sent frightful angels which paralyzed the Egyptians with fear. Therefore, the Egyptians were unable to move.
Meanwhile, during the Egyptians’ dreadful pain and suffering, the Torah stresses, “ULeChol Bnei Yisrael Hayah Or BeMoshevotam,” “And for all of Bnei Yisrael, there was light in their dwellings” (10:23). The Ohr HaChayim explains that even in the homes of the Egyptians, where darkness was everywhere, when a Jew entered there was light. Targum Yonatan adds that this light of the Jews which dominated the Egyptians’ darkness was the light of Torah and Mitzvot, for it states in Sefer Mishlei, “Ki Neir Mitzvah VeTorah Ohr,” “For a commandment is a candle, and the Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23).
A remarkable story is told by the Ponevezher Rav. A certain rabbi in a small Russian town was known for his great love and dedication to Torah learning. Once, when he was learning late at night, Russian soldiers who were keeping a close watch on the town spotted a ray of light coming from his house and they grew suspicious. When they entered the lit house, the soldiers saw an old rabbi bent over a yellow-paged Talmud, and immediately thought he was a spy reading coded information. The soldiers arrested and sentenced the pious man to death. They asked the rabbi if he had a last wish before leaving this world. He responded, “I beg of you, give me a half-hour to finish understanding the words of the Talmud; I will soon be meeting all the great rabbis whose words are discussed here, and I must prepare myself.” The soldiers granted him this wish and this delay led to his life being saved, for the soldiers were called away before the sentence could be carried out. The Ponevezher Rav would say that only true love for Torah could override the darkness that had surrounded this rabbi, and that is what saved his life.
Rav Shmuel Rozovsky explains that even in the darkest moments, in the worst possible situations where every move leads to torture, when it seems that no light can pierce through such thick obstacles, there is one light that can overcome all - the light of Torah and Mitzvot. Even in Egypt, surrounded by total darkness, in a time of chaos and turmoil, those who stuck to the words of Hashem were able to find their way.
Let us all be inspired by this week’s Parashah, and learn from the survival of Bnei Yisrael during the Makkot. We must always remember to look for the light in our daily lives, and thank Hashem for the brightness.