The ninth plague with which Hashem punished the Egyptians was the plague of darkness. For three days an Egyptian “could not see his brother.” This was followed by an even more severe period of darkness that actually paralyzed the populace, to the degree that whoever was sitting could not stand, and whoever was standing could not sit down.
The Chiddushei HaRim, zy”a, once remarked that the greatest darkness possible is when one doesn’t take notice of the troubles of another person and doesn’t seek to come to his aid. In the end, the selfish individual also gets into difficulties, and the second part of the plague comes true for him as well, for he is unable to rise and emerge from his own troubles.
One of the great challenges we face is the obligation to look beyond our own struggles and relate to the tribulations of those around us.
In some circumstances there is much that can be done. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to come to another’s aid, whether it is by providing financial assistance, moral support, or even a listening ear.
In other situations, taking note means using tact, wisdom, and sensitivity in our approach to the plight of others.
The son of a prominent Russian Rav once approached Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l, for a letter of recommendation. Rav Baruch Ber complied and wrote a very warm letter, using lavish titles and heaping praise on the bachur. However, when he mentioned the bachur’s father in the letter, Rav Baruch Ber used a single respectful, but rather minimal, title.
The puzzled bachur expressed his astonishment.
“I wish I could reach an iota of my father’s level… Why did the Rebbe give him only one title and several titles to me?”
“Your parents are divorced,” Rav Baruch Ber replied, “and you mentioned to me that you will be traveling from here to your mother. When she sees this letter, she will certainly have much nachas from these descriptions of you. If the letter also included lavish praise of your father, it would lessen your mother’s enjoyment.
“On the other hand,” Rav Baruch Ber continued, “I know your father well. If he sees the letter, what I wrote will not bother him, for he has no need for titles. After all, I am writing about you, not about him.”
One needs great siyatta diShmaya to have the wisdom to know what to say and when to keep silent. But the requisite hishtadlus includes using common sense.
Make sure that you have all the facts straight from other sources before asking questions or offering unsolicited advice. Don’t ask a married woman how many children she has unless you know for sure that she does have children. Don’t ask a stranger or a casual acquaintance what he does for a living in this economically stressful time, unless you know for sure that he has a job.
It is crucial that teachers and rebbeim be briefed about the family backgrounds of their students before they enter a classroom, and this includes substitutes as well. When a teacher discovers that the young boy he has so sternly instructed to bring a note from his father is actually an orphan, it isn’t only the child who will be deeply hurt. The teacher will be devastated as well.
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There is another incredible lesson to be learned from the plague of darkness.
During the final days of the plague, the Egyptians sat like stone, unable to flex a muscle. They had no way to eat a morsel of food or to drink a drop of water.
So how did they survive?
One explanation is that when the Bnei Yisrael entered their homes, they were filled with compassion for the Egyptians, and fed them and gave them water to drink! Later, when they were instructed by Hashem to ask to borrow silver and golden vessels, the Egyptians could not possibly refuse the very men who had saved their lives.
This teaching is a mind-boggling revelation of the loftiness of the Jews of that time. After eighty-six long and torturous years of suffering and enslavement, their hearts filled with compassion for the very men who had treated them so brutally.
It is also a very illuminating example of how we should treat others.