The ninth plague that God brought upon Egypt, as we read in Parashat Bo, was the plague of darkness, during which time the Egyptians were engulfed in darkness and could not see each other or move from their place (10:23).
The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 14:2) cites an intriguing debate among the Tannaim regarding the “origin” of the darkness that descended upon Egypt. Posing the question, “From where was that darkness,” the Midrash proceeds to cite two opinions. Rabbi Nechemia answered that this darkness came from gehinnom – the underworld, where the souls of the evil are punished. Naturally, this darkness, which thrust the Egyptians into a long, painful period of solitude, is associated – in Rabbi Nechemia’s view – with the suffering of gehinnom. Rabbi Yehuda, however, surprisingly, stated that this darkness descended from the “choshekh shel ma’ala” – the darkness of the uppermost heavenly realms. According to Rabbi Yehuda, this darkness originated not from gehinnom, but from heaven.
Rav Dr. Norman Lamm suggested that these two views reflect the dual nature of the experience of solitude. On the one hand, of course, solitude is an experience from “gehinnom,” one that can create great angst, fear and depression. However, solitude can also be “from the heavens,” allowing us the opportunity to connect with our innermost beings and with God, by freeing us from the noise, commotion and distractions all around us. Rav Lamm writes:
Darkness or solitude can become the curse of loneliness, as it did when it plagued the Egyptians and separated every man from his brother, a loneliness that prevented one from feeling with the other, from sharing his grief and his joy, his dreams and his fears. Darkness can indeed be a plague. But the same darkness can be a blessing, it can be worthy of the closest presence of G-d Himself. For solitude means privacy, it means not only a devastating loneliness but also that precious opportunity when a man escapes from the loud brawl of life and the constant claims of society and in the intimate seclusion of his own soul and heart he gets to know himself and realize that he is made in the image of G-d. Loneliness can be painful – but it can also be precious. The same CHOSHECH that can spell plague for a man if it seals him off from others by making him blind to the needs of his fellows, this same CHOSHECH becomes G-dly when it enables a man to become more than just a social animal, more than just a member of a group, but also a full, mature, unique individual in his own right.
Rabbi Yehuda teaches us that “darkness” is not, intrinsically, a plague. Solitude, at the right times and in the right doses, can be a “heavenly” experience, a valuable means of exploring our innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, aspirations and hopes, of assessing and reassessing our lives and our conduct, and of enhancing our relationship with our Creator.