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Parashat Bo: The Source of Darkness

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

The Source of Darkness*

From the very beginning of time, when Adam complained to God of his loneliness, man has regarded his solitude as a painful experience, even a curse. Modern man is especially bothered by loneliness. Despite, or maybe because of, his large cities and giant metropolises, he finds himself terribly alone in the world. He finds the silence of the universe and its indifference to his problems unbearable. He is alone and does not like it.

It is perhaps this feeling of loneliness that was the essence of the ninth plague that God brought upon the Egyptians and of which we read in this morning’s sidra. The ĥoshekh, or darkness, imposed a rigid and horrifying isolation upon the Egyptians. The effect of the plague is described by the Torah (Exodus 10:23) as “lo ra’u ish et aĥiv,” “they did not see one another.” All communication between a man and his friends ceased. He had no family, no friends, no society; he was completely and utterly blacked out of any contact with any other human. How lonely! What a plague!

It is all the more surprising, therefore, to read the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, recorded in the Midrash on the ninth plague (Exodus Rabba, Bo 14:2). Our Sages asked: “meihekhan hayah haĥoshekh hahu,” “What was the source of that darkness”? Where did it come from? What is the nature and origin of loneliness? Rabbi Neĥemiah gave a credible answer, “meiĥoshekh shel gehenom” – the darkness that descended upon Egypt came from the darkness of Gehenom, from the netherworld. Loneliness is a curse, hence its origin is the place of punishment. But Rabbi Yehuda’s answer is astonishing, “meiĥoshekh shel ma’ala, shene’emar ‘yashet ĥoshekh sitro’” – the source of that darkness was from Heaven, for it is written (Psalms 18:12) that “God dwells in secret darkness!” What an unexpected origin for a plague – God’s dwelling place! Darkness comes from Heaven!

Astonishing, yes, but in that answer by Rabbi Yehuda we have a new insight into the problem of loneliness and hence into the condition of man as a whole. Darkness, or solitude, can become the curse of loneliness, as it did when it plagued the Egyptians and separated every man from his brother, a loneliness that prevented one from feeling with the other, from sharing his grief and joy, his dreams and his fears. Darkness indeed can be a plague. But the same darkness can be a blessing – it can be worthy of the close presence of God Himself. For solitude means privacy, it means that precious opportunity when a man escapes from the loud brawl of life and the constant claims of society, and in the intimate seclusion of his own heart and soul he gets to know himself and realize that he is made in the image of God. Loneliness can be painful – but it can also be precious. The same ĥoshekh that can spell plague for a man if it seals him off from others by making him blind to the needs of his fellows, this same ĥoshekh becomes Godly when it enables a man to become more than just a social animal, more than just a member of a group, but a full, mature, unique individual in his own right. “Yosheiv beseter Elyon” (Psalms 91:1) – God dwells in the highest kind of secrecy or mystery which cannot be penetrated by man. So must every person have an inner life, an internal seter, a chamber of blessed ĥoshekh, which, in its privacy, assures him of his uniqueness as a different, individual man. As Longfellow once wrote, “Not in the clamor of the  crowded street / Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng / But in ourselves are triumph and defeat.” In ourselves, that is where we can develop that brilliant darkness which has its source in God.

An American scholar recently wrote an article called “The Invasion of Privacy” in which he says that the perfect symbol of the confusion of our times is the “picture window” so typical of our newer houses. The “picture window,” he says, is more a means of letting others look in than for having the owner look out. Modern life, with its perpetual telephone calls and never-ending blare of television, with its round of constant appointments and business and social duties, represents an intrusion upon the privacy of each of us, a deliberate attack upon the citadel of one’s personal privacy. And modern man succumbs to this attack – he opens the blinds on the picture window of his heart, seeking to reveal his deepest secrets either to an ever-widening circle of friends or to his analyst or to his priest. We are often afraid of the solitude of privacy. We often fail to realize that ĥoshekh is not only a maka but also an aspect of Godliness. Educators and parents sometimes go to extremes and are appalled by a child who prefers to play by himself or think independently, and rush to impose “group games” and “doing things together” upon the delicious solitude in which a child seeks to discover himself. For a child realizes that, as with the young prophet Samuel, it is within himself that a man can hear the voice of God. Society may be the stage where the command of God is executed, but the inner solitude of man is the audience-chamber where we hear the command. How can a man be a truly good father, as God requires of him, if he does not have a few moments a day to contemplate in utter loneliness the wonder of children? How can a man be a good husband if he only acts out his role without ever thinking through his relationships in the stillness of his heart? How can someone be a good son or daughter if they never are alone long enough to realize the enormous debt we owe the parents for life and love? “Woe to him who is never alone and cannot bear to be alone.”

Don Isaac Abarbanel, that great fifteenth-century Jew who was the treasurer to the King of Portugal until the exile in 1492, put it in sharper fashion in his comment on the first passage in Avot. We read, “Moshe kibel Torah miSinai,” “Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai.” But, notes Abarbanel, it was not from Sinai that Moses received the Law, it was from God at Sinai. It should have been stated, “Moshe kibel Torah beSinai,” or “min Hashem.” The reason for “miSinai,” he answers, is that the Torah was revealed to Moses only because of his inimitable capacity for creative solitude, only because at Sinai he isolated himself from man and was only with God for forty days and forty nights – because Sinai was the place that “nigash el ha’arafel” (Exodus 20:17), that he in his aloneness approached the darkness wherein God dwelt. “Moshe kibel Torah miSinai” – Moses received the Torah by virtue of Sinai, because he learned the secret of Godly solitude. So solitude gave birth to Torah. So does it give birth to ideas and to thoughts and to art and to beauty and to the essence of mankind and to all that is noble in life.

I have never known a really creative person who did not precede the creative act with at least a moment of profound, thoughtful solitude. No really great speech or beautiful musical composition is rolled off extemporaneously. It is forged in the silence of the mind when the outside world is shut out by a Godly darkness. No brilliant idea, whether in the sciences or art or business, is born out of the brawl of life – it is hatched out of the stillness of a creative personality. What is inspiration? It is nothing but the product of positive and constructive silence in the innermost, inviolable chambers of a man’s heart. The source of light is in this kind of darkness or solitude. And the source of this darkness is in God. It is the “ĥoshekh shel ma’ala.”

It is therefore of the greatest importance to all of us that even as we seek to banish the plague of loneliness we do not drive away the blessing of privacy. We ought to regard it as sacred and protect our moments of solitude with zeal. If in the conditions of contemporary life it becomes difficult to escape these intrusions upon our privacy to enjoy the “yashet ĥoshekh sitro,” it becomes all the more important to guard it zealously. We ought to seek opportunities for this solitude of contemplation wherever and whenever we can: whether during our vacation periods when we can afford more of this precious and delicious time, or at the beginning of the day in synagogue at minyan when we can wrest from our busy schedule for the sweet silence of solitude. There is a great deal of ĥoshekh-solitude in the world. The Egyptian makes of it a plague of isolation – “lo ra’u ish et aĥiv” – an inability to see his fellow men, a picture window through which others can look at but he is blind to them. The God-like, however, will make of this solitude an atmosphere of holiness, “yashet ĥoshekh sitro,” a creative opportunity to discover themselves and the voice of God that speaks to them, a window which does not allow others to peer within, but enables them to see others and be with them. This kind of ĥoshekh is not the plague of darkness, it comes from the Most High Source of All Existence. May we learn to make use of that darkness and thus bring great light into the lives of all of us.


*January 17, 1959