"Avoid clichés like the plague," notes New York Times columnist William Safire, illustrating the clichés he warns against, while also pointing to this week's Torah reading, which is, after all, about plagues. They are real plagues, though, not metaphoric ones; and that is what prompts Safire's caution. If anything we wish to avoid can be likened to a plague, we become deadened to the reality of real ones.
The Western world's historic example is the Bubonic Plague, which wiped out 25 million people in five years, spreading like darkness and extinguishing all hope. But wait: Is it fair to compare "plagues" to "darkness," or does the use of either one cheapen the other?
"Darkness" is exactly the right word, if we imagine a time without street or house lights; no flashlights or torches; absence of sight, no warning of impending danger, and no hint of comfort. Now add in bitter cold to the blackness. Plagues are like that — death-like in their darkness.
I get this analogy from Bible commentator Isaac Abravanel, who notes that the three plagues in this week's Torah portion differ from the prior seven in that they share darkness. The locusts arrived in droves that left "the land … in darkness." But locusts come and locusts go in Egypt.
So the next plague upped the ante: just darkness; "thick darkness that can be touched, for three whole days." Still, no one died from it; people huddled together, until it was over. The final plague, therefore, added death to darkness: every first-born killed, at midnight.
No one willingly enters a plague zone. Even if you think that you are personally exempt from danger, the horror of being there is too much to bear.
That is why, with the locusts about to arrive, Moses had to be "brought" to Pharaoh; he would not come willingly. Blood, frogs, boils and the rest — those he could handle. But not genuinely plague-like darkness.
"Let someone else tell Pharaoh that three stages of increasing darkness are on their way," Moses must have hoped.
But God would not send even Moses alone to announce the final plagues of escalating darkness. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk says that, "When God said 'Come,' God meant, 'Come with Me. I, God, will accompany you."
A 'Turning In'
I think of this during times when I visit a dying patient. We picture plagues as mass diseases, spreading from home to home. But terminal illness is equally a plague for the suffering individual. It, too, spreads, organ by organ. It may start with the metastatic proliferation of murderous cells, like locusts devouring a landscape. Then comes darkness of despair; and, finally, death at what may as well be midnight.
It is a terrible thing to watch someone die. "The mind withdraws," says Louise Harmon in Fragments on the Death Watch. "There is a turning in toward the self, a curvature of the spine that directs the remaining life force toward the center."
As I say, no one willingly enters a plague zone — because no sane person wants to watch this happen. So when disease approaches hopelessness, and the hospital room becomes a virtual plague zone, people stop visiting. As the plague advances, loneliness sets in: There's no one to talk to, even as we lose the light to see them by.
But precisely when final darkness looms, the dying need our visits most, and not just to talk banalities. We come at such a time to share the darkness, not turn on lights. It can be a horrible ordeal to sit and wait, and do nothing more than lend a loving presence through the moments leading up to midnight. But it can be strangely satisfying, too, if we remember that the commandment is "Come," not "Go." "Come with Me," says God, "I will sit there with you."
The Talmud locates God's presence lending comfort to patients by resting above their heads. Visitors, too, report sensing that presence at times, especially when death finally arrives. And why not? God never dispatches us all alone to endure the darkness of the dying.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York.