I, myself, have always been fond of the plague of darkness! Darkness is something that all of us encounter everyday….both literally (in terms of nighttime) and figuratively (in terms of difficulties in our lives and the brokenness of the world). The Biblical Author’s invocation of darkness as a plague begs the question: what distinguishes the plague of darkness from the ‘everyday darkness’ we experience in our lives?
Our commentators offer many rich answers to that question, which we will explore together tomorrow morning during our intergenerational Torah study at Shabbat BaBoker. (Services begin at l0, with lunch and study to follow. Join us!)
A separate way of responding to that question, though, is to suggest that there actually wasn’t anything miraculous or special about the phenomenon of darkness that is described in the Bible. Maybe there is a scientific explanation for it…
The Jewish Publication Society publishes an excellent 5 volume commentary of the Torah that specializes in scientific, historic, and archaeological explanations for the Torah. (I highly recommend it!) Its volume on Exodus offers the following explanation for the darkness:
"This affliction can be explained in terms of the khamsin […] This scorching sirocco wind blows in each spring from Saharan Africa or from Arabia, enveloping the land in thick sand and dust. It may often persist for several days and blacken the sky in its wake." (JPS Commentary on Exodus, page 50)
Here we have a much more rational/plausible explanation for the plague of darkness.
A question you may want to consider at your tables: To what degree is the rational plausibility of the Torah important to us and our reading? If we understand the Torah in terms that make its narrative seem more plausible, does that grant the Torah a greater sense of authority? Are we more open to its words, and the way of life it espouses?
Or: perhaps the issue of plausibility does not matter. Perhaps the Torah is important/significant/(some would say holy) to us simply because it is the story that our ancestors told and handed down from generation to generation….not because it was historically true or verified or plausible…but because it was our story.
How do you understand the plague of darkness? As something that happened as a genuine miracle? As something that happened as a genuine meteorological event? Or as something literary/symbolic, part of the epic narrative our ancestors wove to make sense of the world and to explain how our core values came to be? Share your thoughts with one another (or here on the blog!).