Monday, January 22, 2007

Parshat Bo

For a pdf version of this d'var Torah click here

Plagues and Commandments

"By ten Divine utterances was the world created." (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 1). The Kabbalistic texts explain the ten plagues in Egypt corresponded to these ten utterances with which the world was created. At the time of creation the greatest revelation of G-d's Presence was 'In the beginning', when there was only G-d and nothing else. Each act of creation served to further disguise G-d's role in the world. However, with the plagues in Egypt, each new affliction brought the Egyptians and the Israelites closer to the recognition of G-d as Master of the Universe. Therefore, the plagues correspond to creation in reverse order.
The second utterance of creation was "Let there be light" (Genesis 1; 3). This light was not the normal light that illuminates our world today, as the heavenly bodies were not created until the fourth day of creation. Rather, according to the Midrash (quoted in Rashi) it was an intense spiritual light, and G-d saw that the wicked were unworthy of enjoying it. Therefore He separated it from the rest of the universe, and set it aside for the use of the righteous in the World to Come. It is clear that this light was not what we call light, because originally it was mingled with 'darkness' until "G-d separated between the light and the darkness..." (ibid. 4). We know darkness to be simply the absence of light, and therefore it is physically impossible to have dark and light mingled together, yet this impossibility was the light and darkness of the first day of creation.
The second to last plague in Egypt was that of darkness. But again, this was not merely the absence of light, as the verse states, "the darkness will be tangible ... No person could see another, nor could anyone rise from their place for a three day period." (Exodus 10; 21 - 23). Ramban explains that this darkness was an opaque, fog-like condition that extinguished all flames, so that the Egyptians could not use lamps. For the first three days they were confined to their homes by this darkness, but for the next three days the darkness intensified and became so palpable that the Egyptians literally could not move (Rashi).
Furthermore, this darkness was mingled with light, as the Torah says "but for all the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings". Rashi explains that there were two reasons for this plague of darkness. Among the Jews there were many people who had assimilated to the point where there was no hope for them to return to the covenant of Israel. Therefore they were not able to be redeemed from Egypt. G-d provided the darkness so that the Egyptians would not see their deaths and claim that the plagues affected Jews and Egyptians alike. Secondly, G-d had promised that the Jews would go free with all the wealth of Egypt. During the plague of darkness they were able to examine the possessions of the Egyptians, and determine their locations. When the Israelites were about to leave the Egyptians were not be able to deny them anything, as the verse states, "G-d gave the people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they granted their requests, so they emptied Egypt" (ibid. 12; 36). So while the Egyptians were paralysed by the darkness, the Jews were able to walk through their homes, looking through their possessions with clear illumination. This seems to be the mingling of light and darkness before G-d decreed their separation at the time of creation.
The first utterance of creation was the opening word of "In the beginning". At this moment of the 'Big Bang' there was nothing in the universe other than G-d. His unity was so clearly recognisable that the Torah calls the first day "Day one", because the only existence was the Oneness of G-d. Even the angels and other spiritual entities were not created until the second day.
With the final plague on the Egyptians G-d's Presence and unity was once again clearly recognisable to all. "I shall go through Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn ... I shall mete out punishment - I am G-d" (ibid. 12). We stress this in our reading of the Haggadah, "G-d took us out of Egypt - not through an angel, not through a seraph, not through a messenger, but the Holy One, Blessed is He, in His glory, Himself". Just as at the birth of the universe G-d asserted His unity, and direct involvement with the universe, so too from the foundation of Israel as a nation G-d's relationship was direct and personal.

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