Of all the plagues sent to Egypt to convince them to let the enslaved Jews go free, our Rabbis understood that there was a unique pain in the plague of darkness. In their minds, this darkness was unlike the darkness that we often encounter in our everyday. It was a total darkness. Not only did it block sight, but it also blocked sound and movement. As our ancient Rabbis described it, the darkness was “as thick as a dinar coin” (Midrash Tanchuma Bo 2).
Yet this soup-like darkness was not an instant problem. In fact, our Rabbis explain, the first few days of darkness were tolerable. For three days people could move about and while they could not see their fellow, they could certainly hear him and touch him. However, darkness usually begets more darkness and after three days the air was so thick with blackness that it was oppressive. One could not sit or stand. Everyone was in their own isolation chamber, frozen in whatever place they were when the fog rolled in.
Interestingly, this darkness shared many elements in common with another darkness so many in our world face, that of depression. Seeing the darkness of the Egyptians as a metaphor for this particular type of suffering is helpful in understanding a struggle so many in our lives face.
Writing about the pain of depression in her book Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel explains:
That's the thing I want to make clear about depression: It's got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal -- unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature's part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead.
In a way, the sensation that Wurtzel describes is the perfect parallel for the plague of darkness. It is thick, unmovable, and rigid. Trapped in a island of pain, the sufferer cannot escape. Depression is not normal darkness. It may start as that. But soon after, it becomes more viscous, filling all spaces and pinning you down.
Yet, a cursory glance at other Midrashim reveal a deeper parallel. Depression seems to be an entity unto itself, as if a living organism is eating away at the core of one's being. Our rabbis personified the darkness. When it realized that it was succeeding in breaking the spirits of the Egyptians it magnified itself. To illustrate this, our Rabbis tell a story:
There was a king whose slave sinned against him. He ordered someone to give him fifty lashes, but the man went and gave him a hundred lashes, thus increasing the punishment on his own. So too with the Holy One, Blessed is God. He sent darkness upon the Egyptians, but darkness added an extra measure on its own. (Midrash Tanchuma Bo 1)
As the darkness grew it became a prison. Unable to move, suddenly the Egyptians understood what it was like to keep the people in shackles. As our Rabbis teach, “Whatever the Egyptians devised against Israel, the Holy One, Blessed is God brought against them...They schemed to imprison them so God brought the plague of darkness on them (Midrash Tanchuma Bo 4).
The pain of imprisonment is bad, however the truly horrific feature of the Israelites slavery, one shared by the Egyptians in the darkness, is that this imprisonment had no definite end date. In both cases one is thrown into shackles without warning and not told when release will come. Like with depression, it was not clear when the suffering might end. Our rabbis understand that faced with an indefinite time in the prison of the darkness many Egyptians preferred death. As Wurzel explains:
That's the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to ever see the end.
But more than anything, the most devastating part of the darkness may simply have been that there was no light. When we are young we are taught to fear the shadows, for it may contain some hidden creature lurking in the corner. However, there is something profound and redemptive about shadows: they only exists because there is light. The darkness of the Egyptians was like the darkness of depression. It is a total darkness without the possibility of shadows. But when that darkness begins to lift, before the nascent light appears, we first find that we begin to cast a shadow and through the shade we cast, we begin to understand that redemption is possible. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her memoir The Bell Jar:
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
When we are in the darkness we may not be able to see light, but if we search for the shadow we may begin to gather the strength to know that light exists and find a way out.
And for all of those who seek to understand the struggles of those dealing with depression, the plague of darkness can serve as a salient metaphor for their pain, giving us perspective and helping us better empathize with their distress.