The Plague of Darkness (Chapter 10:21–29)

Two significant issues merit our attention from the Torah’s description of the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. The first deals with the statement that the darkness was so thick that people couldn’t see each other (Exodus 10:23). The Hebrew original is “a man was unable to see his brother.” This statement has been used to describe a decadent society engulfed in what many call “moral darkness.” The essence of morality is altruism—the concern for and care for the “other.”

Is this a religious principle, a moral principle, or rational behavior? What is the difference between these three? Can people without some fundamental conviction develop the sensitivity necessary to embrace the “other,” who is not family but is in need?

In Judaism, it is a legal imperative to help others. The Torah states thirty-six times: “You must love the stranger.” In the second century, Rabbi Akiva said that the primary teaching of the Torah is its words: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”

There is an obligation in Judaism to respond to people who require help. Maimonides and Nachmanides write that the biblical command to chase away a mother bird before taking its chicks from the nest teaches compassion (although Maimonides says that even birds have feelings, while Nachmanides contends that they do not).

Many other laws are based upon this consideration, such as the requirement that farmers leave any dropped stalks of grain on the ground during the harvest for the poor to collect.

Can we consider ourselves a moral society if we do not help needy people? The Greek philosopher Aristotle writes that man is a social being. Is it our nature that requires us to help others or something else? Author Ayn Rand took a different approach. She insisted that people should look out for themselves intelligently and be enlightened. Who is right? Is there a middle path? Should stronger nations help poorer nations?

The second significant issue relating to the plague of darkness emerges from what Rashi says about Exodus 13:18: “Now the Israelites went up armed (the Hebrew is chamushim) out of the land of Egypt.” In a sermonic play on chamushim, which may be derived from the word chamesh, “five,” he deduces a homiletical lesson that only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt. Four-fifths died during the plague of darkness. They were so assimilated that they were not worthy of redemption.

This is an astounding statistic, but it points to the toll that is taken when a person lives in an alien cultural environment, one whose ideals are inimical to theirs.

Jews have always had to fight for their physical and spiritual survival among every nation with whom they have lived for the last two thousand years. Assimilation has claimed many Jewish victims.

 

The Jewish Lunar Calendar Is Born (Chapter 12:1–2)

The first commandment given to the Israelites is in Exodus 12:1–2: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” Rabbinic tradition reads these verses as a mandate to establish a lunar calendar to orchestrate Jewish life: the dates of all Festivals, the dates on documents, such as the Ketubah—the marriage contract, and the Get—the divorce decree.

Since certain holidays are seasonal by biblical mandate, like Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the fall, and the lunar month is only twenty-nine-and-a-half days, the lunar calendar needs to be adjusted seven times each nineteen years by adding a month to reconcile it with the solar calendar. According to rabbinic tradition, the new moon had to be seen by two witnesses who testified before the elders or the court; then, they would officially declare the beginning of the month and notify the Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. It wasn’t until the middle of the fourth century CE when Christians took control of Israel and restricted Jewish practices, that a fixed, detailed lunar calendar was introduced, which told when each lunar month and holiday commenced.

Why did the Torah mandate a lunar and not a solar calendar? Could it have been to wean the Israelites from Egyptian and other cultures where the sun was considered a god? Or might it be because the moon’s light reflects the sun’s light—the moon produces no light of its own—and the Torah is stating that God wants the Israelites to know that as a nation, they had to reflect God’s “light”—Godly values and ideals? God could have wanted them to look at the imperfection, the sliver of a moon at the beginning of the month, and recognize that the world He created was left imperfect so that people would help God perfect the world.

Another interpretation could be that the moon is a symbol teaching that when it seems that darkness of oppression is engulfing us., we, like the moon, will be renewed.

A third understanding of Exodus 12:1–2 is literal: from then on, the month the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt is regarded as the first Hebrew month. The law gives a unique distinction to the Exodus. It is a pivotal event. The Exodus is inserted frequently into the prayer book and is mentioned in many rituals, such as the prayer over wine at the onset of the Shabbat meal. Among other things, the Torah requires Jews to treat strangers with consideration because they should remember that they were once strangers in Egypt.

 

The Length of the Slavery (Chapter 12)

How long did the Israelites reside in Egypt before they were liberated? Exodus 12:40 informs us: “The time that the Israelites dwelt in Egypt was 430 years. It happened that at the end of the 430th year on that very day, the entire host of the Lord departed the land of Egypt.”

Noticing the list of generations, Rashi states that the Israelites couldn’t have resided in Egypt for that long a period. He suggests that the count refers to God’s revelation to Abram before the Israelite exile to Egypt, found in Genesis 15:13: “Know well that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will make them work and oppress them for 400 years.” The number there is 400, not 430, and the count did not begin until Isaac was born.

The Samaritan and Septuagint versions of Genesis 12:40 state that the Israelites dwelt “in Egypt and the land of Canaan 400 years.” They did not use the 430 figure. Weren’t these ancient documents too hasty when they thought there was a problem? Isn’t there a simple answer: the 400 number is rounded (about 400 years), while the 430 number is precise?

Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer states that the actual time the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt was 210 years.