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In the portion Bo, the Creator comes to Moses and says, “Raise your hands toward the heavens and let there be darkness in the land of Egypt… The darkness, Moses, needs to be not simple darkness, but a darkness unlike the other plagues...”
The other plagues went on for a certain duration of time and then left, but Makat Choshech, the Plague of Darkness, is different. It came in two phases - first there was darkness for three days, a hard darkness, and then it says that after the first three days of darkness there was an even more severe darkness; so severe that people literally could not stand up if they had been sitting when the second phase of darkness began, and had to remain sitting for all three days.
So, there are two things we want to understand. First, why does Moses have to raise his hands up to the heavens to bring this darkness to the world? And second, what is the need to have two phases of darkness? Why have three days of bad darkness and then three days of even worse darkness? The Creator did not, for example, have one day of locusts and then a second day that was even worse. What is the point of differentiating the two?
The Ramban, Nachmanides, explains that this darkness we are talking about is not the darkness that we have every night, where, simply, the sun does not shine. It is a special darkness that was brought down from the heavens. There was a unique darkness that the Creator wanted Moses to awaken, which is why he had to lift up his hands to the heavens to bring it down.
Furthermore, it says in the Midrash, and Rashi brings it, that something else happened during those six days of darkness. It says the kabbalistic explanation is that only one-fifth of the Israelites survived the Plague of Darkness; 80%, or four out of five of the Israelites, died during it, whether spiritually or physically. Only 20% of the Israelites survived the darkness.
What does all this mean? The Kotzker Rebbe says, and other kabbalists speak about this as well, that the Plague of Darkness was a revelation of the Or Ha'Ganuz, of what is called the Concealed Light. The Zohar tells us that when the Creator created our world, He created the Light that was going to bring the ultimate removal of darkness from the world, the Gemar HaTikun, the end of pain, suffering and death. But, it says that He saw there were going to be negative people in the world, so He concealed all of that Light and only revealed a small amount of it. Our purpose, our goal in our spiritual work, is to reveal that Light, the Or Ha'Ganuz, again.
So, when we talk about Makat Choshech, the Plague of Darkness, we are talking about a complete unencumbered revelation of the Or Ha'Ganuz. But how can that bring darkness?
I want to share something that many of us have read many times from Rav Ashlag, from Letter 12 to 13 of his Introduction to the Ten Luminous Emanations (published as And You Shall Choose Life). This is one of the most important sections in Rav Ashlag's teachings, because, without it, we really cannot accomplish our spiritual work. Without going into all the details, Rav Ashlag is saying that the Light of a person's spiritual work can only be revealed to him if he has certainty; the Light that a person reveals through his spiritual work, whether it is through reading the Zohar, prayer, or sharing, will only shine to him if he has complete certainty.
Rav Ashlag says, “If a person is doing the spiritual work, and is studying, but still does not have complete certainty in the Light of the Creator and has doubts, the Light that is within the study, the Light that is within the spiritual work, will not shine to him.” Here, Rav Ashlag makes a statement that we have to keep in our mind at all times: "The Light of the Torah, the Light of the Creator, only shines to a person who has certainty. And not only that, how much Light a person receives through his study and through his work is exactly dependent on the amount of certainty he has." That is why my father, Rav Berg, always said it is all about consciousness. Because if a person has no certainty he can be doing the spiritual work from morning until night and receive no Light.
As such, if a person lacks certainty, not only does he not receive Light from his spiritual work, but he actually receives darkness. It says in the Talmud that if a person is not awakening greater and greater certainty, then the Light that he thinks he is revealing actually causes darkness for him. If a person is not endeavoring to strengthen and grow his certainty, not only does he not receive Light, but he receives darkness. This is something we have to keep in mind all the time. A person can be doing all the things right and have darkness.
There are two aspects to this, but here Rav Ashlag is specifically talking about what happens if a person lacks certainty; a person who thinks he is more spiritual, thinks he is growing, thinks he is connecting, but actually is becoming darker. This is what happened in Egypt. The Light, the Or Ha'Ganuz, was revealed completely. However, to most people - the Egyptians, and 80% of the Israelites who were still filled with ego - the Light was not Light, but darkness.
And this is what happens to every single one of us. Any experience of darkness that we have in our lives, any experience of pain, we now understand, is the Or Ha'Ganuz. It is the Concealed Light. Yes, it is Light, but, because our vessel is still so filled with Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, we experience that Light as darkness. If too much of that Light is revealed in the world, we will have a tremendous amount of pain. When it says in the Zohar that the Creator concealed the Or Ha'Ganuz, He was doing us a favor because if the Or Ha'Ganuz was revealed today, most of us, probably, would only feel darkness, and not Light.
In Egypt, the Gemar HaTikun, the Concealed Light, was all revealed… and, what happened? It was darkness for the Egyptians. It was darkness and pain for 80% of the Israelites, too. First, there were three days of darkness, and that is where most of us are in our lives. We experience pain, we experience difficulty, we experience darkness, and we have to understand that is the Light of the Creator; because of where we are with our Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, ego, and lack of change, we experience that as pain. That is the first three days in Egypt. If we do not understand that, then there are three days of worse darkness.
When the Gemar HaTikun was revealed, it was darkness, and not Light. That is what Makat Choshech, the Plague of Darkness, was, and we have to realize that every element of pain and darkness we experience in our lives is this experience of the Light of the Creator coming to a vessel, us, that is still filled with Desire to Receive for the Self Alone and ego. And if we stay who we are and bring more Light in our life it is going to cause darkness. The gift we receive - not to fall like the 80% of the Israelites, not to fall like the Egyptians - is to realize that no Light revealed is better for us right now, and that our singular focus has to be a complete change of who we are. On Shabbat Bo, we can receive the true gift of understanding that the ability to change our essence is what will enable us to experience Light as Light, and not as darkness.