Parshas Bo – Death by Darkness
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Bo, after hundreds of years in Egypt, the Israelites leave their country of bondage, marching to a hopeful future.
With the final three plagues outlined in the parsha – arbeh/locusts, choshech/darkness, and makkas bechoros/the plague of the firstborn – Pharaoh orders the Jews to leave. As the devastation of makkas bechoros unfolds across the land of Egypt:
וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה, הוּא וְכָל-עֲבָדָיו וְכָל-מִצְרַיִם, וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה, בְּמִצְרָיִם: כִּי-אֵין בַּיִת, אֲשֶׁר אֵין-שָׁם מֵת – And Pharaoh arose at night, he and all his servants and all Egypt, and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not a corpse; וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן לַיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי–גַּם-אַתֶּם, גַּם-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – And he called to Moshe and Aharon at night and said: Rise up, go out from among my people, even you, even the children of Israel; go and serve Hashem as you spoke! (Shemos 12:30-31)… And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Succos, about 600,000 on foot, the men, aside from the children (ibid, v.37).
While the Bnei Yisrael did leave Egypt, a miracle and series of wonders which we commemorate every year when we relive Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) on layl ha’Seder, the reality is that not all the Jews left.
During the ninth plague, makkas choshech (darkness), the Egyptians found themselves in a state of six days of darkness, when the darkness became so thick that they could not move from sitting to standing, or from standing to sitting (Rashi to Shemos 10:22).
Rashi comments: וְלָמָּה הֵבִיא עֲלֵיהֶם חֹשֶׁךְ? שֶׁהָיוּ בְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר רְשָׁעִים וְלֹא הָיוּ רוֹצִים לָצֵאת, וּמֵתוּ בִשְׁלוֹשֶׁת יְמֵי אֲפֵלָה, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִרְאוּ מִצְרִיִּים בְּמַפַּלְתָּם וְיֹאמְרוּ, אַף הֵם לוֹקִים כָּמוֹנוּ – And why did He bring darkness upon them? For there were among Israel in that generation wicked individuals who did not wish to leave Egypt, and they died during the three days of thick darkness. This happened so that they Egyptians should not witness their downfall and say: they too are being stricken as we are!
Furthermore, Rashi later tells us (13:18) חֲמֻשִׁים אֶחָד מֵחֲמִשָּׁה יָצְאוּ וְאַרְבָּעָה חֲלָקִים מֵתוּ בִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יְמֵי אֲפֵלָה – The Children of Israel went up ‘in fifths’: Only one out of five Israelites departed from Egypt, and the other 4/5’s died during the three days of darkness.
How could it be, we wonder, that some of the Jews did not want to leave Egypt? Wasn’t this the land of their affliction, the land of “every male that is born shall be thrown into the river” (Shemos 1:22)? Was this not the Pharaoh who would slaughter Jewish babies and bathe in their blood (Rashi to 2:23)? Was this not the country of “and they embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and with bricks, and with every labor of the field” (1:14)?
How is it possible that there were those who did not want to leave?!
Perhaps Chazal are teaching us a profound life lesson.
Often in life, we become complacent with our personal station and level. It may not be good, it may not be what we ideally longed for, it may not be ideal… but it is what it is and it will do. Change is hard, moving forward takes commitment we don’t necessarily feel we have, and we are afraid of the unknown.
When we adopt the mindset of “I can’t” – in regard to reaching new heights in learning, in tefillah, in tikkun ha’middos (character development and improvement), in bein adam la’chavairo (interaction between man and his fellow) and bein adam la’Makom (our relationship between us and Hashem) – we too become stuck in the proverbial darkness of the שְׁלֹשֶׁת יְמֵי אֲפֵלָה. We may want to improve, but don’t feel strong enough, brave enough, and courageous enough to march forward into a whole new existence. And so… we would rather “not leave” and are content to stay where we are.
After the tragic passing of R’ Mosheh Twersky zt’l HY”D (of one the kedoshei Har Nof, murdered al kiddush Hashem, 25 Cheshvan 5775/11.18.14) – himself a gaon olam and gadol ba’Torah, mitzvos, v’yiras Shomayim – a note was found on his desk, dated 15 Elul 5774, the date of his last birthday. In the note, he had written words of encouragement to himself, “…nevertheless, chalilah v’chalilah to slacken and say, ‘What gain is there in all of our efforts, for we are lost and our hope is lost!’, because that is the counsel and song of the yetzer harah (the evil inclination)! Therefore, come and let us renew the old resolutions, for they are good” (A Malach in Our Midst, p.299)
Rebbetzin Twersky emphasized, sharing a sentiment that all who knew R’ Twersky agreed upon, “My husband was not at twenty-five what he was at fifty-five. He never got to a plateau (in his avodas Hashem). He was forever going up the ladder; that is who he was” (ibid, p.300).
It is true that changing who we are, how we live, behave, think, act and interact is not easy. And yet, the alternative is to remain in the darkness of Mitzrayim, afflicted with the inability to stand from sitting, or to sit from standing. I.e.: if we don’t have the courage to embrace our potential, we become stuck in place and find ourselves unable to spiritually move.
In a famous quote attributed to R’ Yisrael Salanter zt’l (1810-1883), known as the father of the mussar movement, we are taught that: It is easier to learn through Shas than to change a single middah. Resolve to change, and implementing change, is not easy! So difficult is it that 4/5’s of the Israelites died during the plague of darkness!
But let us not forget the 1/5th who marched forward. Difficult, yes; impossible, not at all.
While we are yet here in this world, and the possibility for change exists, let us be courageous enough to leave our personal Mitzrayim (lit. straits), to improve what needs to be improved and to create a new reality for ourselves in our lives.
Let us be sure that, after 120 years, when we give our accounting, we will be able to say: בבהילו יצאנו ממצרים – with great haste, we left Mitzrayim behind and marched forward to an ennobled and exalted life of Torah and mitzvos.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,