Friday, January 3, 2014


In these two parshiot we are treated with one of the most famous sections of Torah and for many it is troubling.  The plagues of Mitzraim (Egypt).  The plagues are an ever increasing series of supernatural punishments visited upon the people of Mitzraim because of the failure of the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave.  In fact each time a plague comes there is a direct or implied promise of freedom from the Pharoah which is then dashed in the end when the plague is no longer in action.  It is only after the death of the first born does Pharaoh relent and again has second thoughts which brings one more serious supernatural punishment as he gets to watch as his entire army is swallowed into the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites crossed the split sea to freedom.

But why is it troubling?  Well at first there is the very nature of the acts.  It isn't only Pharaoh who is punished for his actions but the people as a whole.  This story that is retold with great joy every year at Pesach has a little bit of discomfort in it.  We express this discomfort when we take a drop of wine, the symbol of our joy, out of our cups at the Pesach Seder for each plague.  We understand that we lessen our joy for the sake of the suffering of the Egyptians.  This lesson is punctuated by a Midrash that tells as the army of the Pharaoh are drowning, Moses, Miriam and the children of Israel sing praises to God for their salvation.  Angels in heaven join the Israelites only to be rebuked by God who asks "How can you sing as my children are dying?"  So the complication of the plagues is something that sits awkwardly in our modern understanding of the text.  It is impossible to justify the killing of all of the first born of the Egyptians.  Some seemed nice to the Israelites, some even seemed to fear the God of Israel.  However the story is clear, they didn't escape the wrath of God and God's need to show the power of God not only to the people of Israel but to the world.  The story of the plagues and the freedom spreads across the ancient near east according to the Torah because very soon Yitro will walk onto the scene having heard these stories.  There is another take on this from the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel who says, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Citing this idea we can make the statement that the Egyptian people aren't directly responsible they stood by and let a leader like Pharaoh remain in power, leading to this end.  I am not sure I buy that but more on that later.

Another troubling aspect is the very nature of the plagues.  They are supernatural and unbelievable by many modern thinking people.  We read these stories and see them as fanciful but not true stories.  God doesn't split seas, kill children and bring forth frogs.  These miraculous notions troubled early Reconstructionist thinkers who removed the plagues from early Haggadot only to find people putting them back in because they resonant with people.  There is something about that piece of the story that we feel deep.  And that is the power of the story.  The deep feeling of drama and play and the sense of battle between two different ways of seeing the world.

This notion is lost on those who have sought to find explanations for the plagues.  Countless hours have been devoted to finding something, anything, to explain these miracles as possible.  Watching frogs emerge from the mud after a cold snap, the series of possible complications that can lead to lice, boils, cattle disease and finally death of the first born.  One such exploration went into great detail to suggest that the first born son would get the first of the grain in storage and that it must have been contaminated by the results of the locust and hail leading to a form of natural poison forming on the grain.  The apparent stretching that had to go into linking the plagues to each other was stunning but for this person the fact that they could have occurred was more important that strain credulity.   For the writers of this notion, the plagues were a lynch pin, without faith is gone.

But the plagues likely didn't happen and certainly not as they are written in the Torah.  In fact we have little evidence that Israelites were ever slaves in Mitzraim.  What we have is a powerful story of freedom and redemption that we can see as a lesson for all of us.  The Bible in general is not meant to be a book of facts. I don't think even the earliest of people who studied the text thought so either.  It is meant to be a book of lessons.  Worrying about whether God was fair to the Egpytians or that it is possible the a Sea split for a time for a troop of hundreds of thousands to walk across is irrelevant.  What is relevant to the modern reader, to us, is the timeless lessons in it all.  There will always be parts that we don't like.  We will always argue with God, but if we approach the text with an open mind and heart we can find something in it to expand our understand of ourselves, our neighbors and our world.

The plagues trouble me.  Like many times in the Torah when someone has to die for the sake of a good I can't understand I struggle.  But the struggle is what makes the text great.  The story of freedom that is so dear to the Jewish people is a powerful one, in part because of the role of God in the story.  But we can also remember the cost of our freedom.  The destruction of Mitzraim and the death of so many will live with us for a long time.  But it is good to remember our stories and digest them for the future.   Who knows what we might find.  Shabbat Shalom.

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