A season of Darkness”: that’s how Charles Dickens describes the reign of terror that gripped revolutionary France under the spell of the guillotine. He might equally have had in mind the plagues that seized Egypt, one after the other. Plagues are nothing, if not death-like in their darkness.
And not just metaphoric darkness either. Abravanel notes that all three plagues in this week’s reading — the last and the worst, compared to which the first seven plagues were child’s play — have darkness in common. The locusts arrived in droves so thick that “the land was in darkness” (10:14). Locusts come and locusts go, however — Egypt had experienced them before. So the next plague upped the ante: just deep darkness, lasting and inexplicable, “thick darkness that can be touched, for three whole days” (10:21-22). Still, no one died from it; people huddled together, holding hands, perhaps, until it was over. The final plague, therefore, added death to darkness: every first-born killed, precisely at midnight.
No one willingly enters a plague zone. Even if you think you are personally exempt from danger, the horror of being there is just too much to bear. That is why, with the locusts about to arrive, Moses had to be “brought” to Pharaoh (10:8) — he would not come willingly. Blood, frogs, boils, and the rest — those he could handle. But not pure darkness, the sun, and all the stars in total eclipse. Not that! “Let someone else tell Pharaoh that three stages of increasing darkness are on their way,” Moses must have hoped.
He should have paid closer attention to God’s command: “Come,” not “Go,” to Pharaoh. “We can never distance ourselves from God,” says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, “When God said ‘Come,’ God meant, ‘Come with Me. I, God, will accompany you.’” God would not send even Moses all alone to announce the plagues of escalating darkness.
I think of this when I visit a dying patient. We picture plagues as mass diseases, spreading person to person, home to home. But terminal illness is equally a plague for the person suffering from it. It too spreads, limb by limb, organ by organ. It may start with the metastatic proliferation of murderous cells that consume the body like locusts devouring a landscape. Then comes darkness of despair so thick it can be touched, and, finally, death at what may as well be midnight.
It is a terrible thing to watch someone die. “The mind withdraws,” says Louise Harmon, in her “Fragments on the Death Watch.” “There is a turning in toward the self, a curvature of the spine that directs the remaining life force toward the center. The knees are tucked up under the body. The arms are folded like a praying mantis, a caricature of moot supplication, and the petition is for safety.”
As I say, no one willingly enters a plague zone — because no sane person wants to watch this happen. So when disease approaches hopelessness, and the hospital room becomes a virtual plague zone, people invent reasons not to visit. As the plague advances, loneliness sets in: no one to talk to even as we lose the light to see them by.
But precisely when final darkness looms, the dying need our visits most, and not just to talk banalities. We come at such a time to share the darkness, not turn on lights. It can be a horrible ordeal to sit, and wait, and do nothing more than lend a loving presence through the moments leading up to midnight. But it can be strangely satisfying too, if we remember that the commandment is “Come,” not “Go.” “Come with Me,” says God, “I will sit there with you.”
The Talmud locates God’s comforting presence alongside the patient’s head. Visitors too report sensing that presence at times, especially when death finally arrives. And why not? God never dispatches us all alone to endure the darkness.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.