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Under the cover of darkness
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Under the cover of darkness

Bo | Exodus 10:1-13:16

Parashat Bo tells the story of the three final plagues — locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn, the last horrific plague that ultimately breaks Pharaoh’s will.

I continue to be fascinated by the ninth plague, hoshekh, darkness, which the Torah calls “a darkness that can be touched,” a palpable darkness. The Torah says, “Thick darkness descended upon the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”

The rabbis of the Midrash note that the text does not say that there was light in the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived, but that the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. And so they imagine that wherever a Jew went, he had his own personal supply of light. As a result, during the three days of darkness, the Israelites would enter Egyptians’ homes and determine what valuables were there so that they would know what to ask for before they left Egypt.

The Mekhilta, the earliest rabbinic commentary on the book of Shemot, says that when the Egyptians realized that the Jews had been in their homes and hadn’t robbed or otherwise harmed them, they were so favorably impressed that they willingly gave them their valuables as gifts.

This is certainly fanciful, but it does raise a question: If, during the three days of darkness, the Israelites had light and the Egyptians couldn’t see, why didn’t they just leave? The Egyptians would have had no way to stop them or even to know what was happening. The Israelites could have taken not only their children and livestock, but also gold and silver, provisions for the trip, and even weapons.

But they did not leave during the darkness. And later, on the night of the Passover, when Pharaoh woke up in the middle of the night and discovered what had happened, he said to Moses and Aaron, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!”

The Mekhilta understands that Pharaoh meant that the Israelites should go now, this minute. But Moses replied that they would only go in daylight. “Are we thieves that we should depart at night? We will leave with an upraised arm [i.e., proudly] in full view of all Egypt.”

To leave in darkness — furtively, secretly — implies shame, and so Moses refused.

If you think about it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb. If you are planning to do something that won’t stand up to the full light of day, if you would prefer to hide under cover of darkness so that no one else will know, maybe you shouldn’t do it.

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