Peter J. Rubinstein | March 26, 2013
The Reason for the 10 Plagues
I’m aware that the holiday of Passover is a time that we have to use our imagination, and we, as Jews, etch throughout the year upon our history and traditions, and even the reading of the Torah and even the Haftorah, our own stories. The fact is that for us, as Jews, nothing really is static, in that there is always the opportunity to see in the unfolding of our lives the classic lessons of our people, including redemption as I mentioned. But in some ways, not only is nothing static, as we say “Ain chadash tachat hashemesh” there’s nothing new under the sun.
We know, for instance, that no fewer than 36 times does the Torah instruct, no command, us to love the stranger as we love ourselves. Freud says, that’s not a great lesson to teach, considering how much we may not love ourselves. But the fact is, while this instruction of ethics might rest on the same theological force which gives rise to most of the other commandments, the commandment to care for the stranger rests on another underlying reason. It is because the experience of the stranger is our history. We know what it is like to be strangers. We were nursed on it. We felt the harshness of the ordeal of being outside the confines of any society. We suffered as the outsider in the land of Egypt – it was brutal – and so we need to regularly recall the brutality of that era in order to capture within us, in every generation, a sensitivity to the stranger.
Having celebrated the Seder last evening, we relived that experience of Egypt, an experience which is palpable because no generation of Jews ever considers itself very far from disruption. And lest we think that we’re living in a different time, I couldn’t help but see that the firefighter in the news who is accused of bigotry in his attitudes especially to gays and to blacks had on his twitter account a picture of Hitler, and in fact talked about Bloomberg as “the big Jew.” So it really is never too far away. An overview of our history is replete with examples of Jews who had to move, who had to confront prejudice, who had to scratch and claw for their very existence. Sadly, we never believe we are far away from a persecution which could sap the life blood from our people.
Yes, we know well the experience of the stranger and we hearken to the cries of those in our own society who call out to us for help and salvation. And lest we forget, the Haggadah reminds us to pay heed, to give mind, to open our ears as well as our hearts. Even though altruism may not drive us to exemplary behavior, we take note that the Jewish people totters on the brink of the life of the stranger. God’s beginning instruction to Abraham was that his descendants will sojourn in a land that is not their own, where they will be oppressed and treated harshly.
We know we are not alone in this experience. Every immigrant generation in every nation throughout the world has known the pangs of birth in a new homeland or a new country. Whether it was Yemenite Jews in Israel, the Irish, Italians and Jews in this nation, people from India and Pakistan in England, Algerians in France, and people from Mexico here at home, people continue to feel the pain of being on the outside. Now, let us be clear that for some of these groups, assimilation and acceptance may be around the corner, and for others it has never been accomplished. Often, the stranger remains the outsider. And whether they arrived five years ago or fifty or even a hundred and fifty, the experience of some groups is that they will remain the outsider by reason of religion or race or culture, or perhaps even gender preference. Sadly, I leave it to you to consider whether the assimilation of all groups into our society is complete.
And there are other places where the experiences of being the stranger may have nothing to do with population movements. It may have everything to do with differences and historical memory which spans not a hundred and fifty years, but five centuries or more- in South Africa, in Ireland, in Somalia.
The question before us is not simply what can we do but what can we learn from the narration of the events of our own history, the very story which occupies us during this Pesach holiday. Among other historical insights is the means by which we were ultimately delivered from Egypt. One would think that one plague would have been enough to indicate God’s power, to inform the Egyptians that God meant business and that there would be no divine rest until this people was freed from the murderous taskmasters yoke. You figure a river turning into blood would have made the point. Or swarms of insects invading every field and home – that those might have convinced Pharoah and the Egyptians that it was of no use to refuse to let the people go. And what about boils infecting the skin of every beast and human being? When would it have had to happen that the Egyptians would finally learn they had to let this people go?
But it did not happen so cleanly. With every plague, the Egyptians increased their devastating grip on the Israelites, in fact taking vengeance on them for what God had caused them to suffer. It says in the midrash that with every plague, they beat the Israelites harder, driving them to their deaths. Time after time, the waves of God’s anger and intention fell upon the Egyptians but to no avail. And the Egyptians took the beating that God dished out and turned their enmity and violence on the victims, the Israelites.
And might I suggest that in fact the plagues that they suffered are not for them alone. I would suggest to us that if the plagues that are infecting us as a society were brought together more expediently, more narrowly, more powerfully, that we ourselves even then might not learn the lessons. If we think of the plagues in our society – of gun violence and of human sex trafficking, of injustice, and of poverty and of human suffering– we would ask, shouldn’t we be learning our lesson? Shouldn’t we be opening our hearts to the stranger and the immigrant – those who are different? Shouldn’t we learn from the lessons are being taught us? And yet I would suggest that it isn’t that way, as we learned from Egypt. They may have suffered a new plague, in fact, everyday – according to the midrash they had to suffer fifty plagues before they let the people go. But it was not because they were not suffering, but it was because perhaps it took too long for them to figure out that their suffering and the pain they were causing the others was not going to halt so quickly.
At the least, we can say that God had resolve in seeing through the vanquishing of the Egyptians and bringing the Israelites to freedom. The question is, do we have the ability to understand that in some way plagues are being visited upon us even if they are of our own making? And when is it that we may open our eyes to the ills that we are bringing upon ourselves and with which we are hurting others, and decide to make a difference, and to end them, by allowing those who are suffering to be a part of us? Allowing the poor to find a way out of their poverty, and those who are locked behind the border fences, being sent home, to find a place in this nation? These are not easy questions. But I would wonder, if we had been able to interview the Egyptians, would they have said they were easy questions? Perhaps not.
But now I think it is up to us to decide how to build the lessons we learn from history into our decisions and actions every day. God willing we will be ready to do what is needed from us right now, in the days and weeks ahead, months and years ahead. And if we can do that, perhaps the violence we have brought into this nation and upon ourselves and, I would add, others, might be alleviated, because we realize that God still acts in our lives, and we can make this place and the lives of others better if we could learn our own story. God willing that’s something we will take away from this holiday.
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