Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat 5777, 28th January 2017
Schadenfreude, that’s what comes to mind when we read about the first six plagues that are brought down on Pharaoh and Egypt. They deserve it. Enslaving our people for 400 years and then refusing to let them go out to have a little quality time with their God. Shame on you.
But there’s a subtext here, one that raises a few questions. There is the free-will question: How can God punish Pharaoh if He doesn’t allow him let the people go? Clearly we see for most of the plagues that Pharaoh did his own heart-hardening, thank you very much -no help needed.
So that’s not the question. The more intriguing question is: For whom are plagues? Who is God trying to impress? The answer would seem straightforward enough: He wants to impress Pharaoh and Egypt and at the same time all the nations around, to show how great our God is and how He can overcome the Nile god, the sun god, the earth god, even the Pharaoh god.
But that’s only a partial answer. The other target population for the plagues is the Israelites. Not the damage done by the plagues but the fact that they exist. Here you have a ragtag bunch of slaves who have been so demoralized and dehumanized that they can’t even remember what freedom was like. It’s like the I. L. Peretz story of Bontshe Shvayg (“Bontshe the silent”). This poor, simple, pious soul is welcomed in heaven and when asked what of all the things in the world he would like – all he can think to ask for is a fresh roll.
That’s the Israelites after so many years of slavery. They can’t imagine freedom. So yes, the plagues are meant for Pharaoh and his country, to show them who’s boss. But they are also meant to demonstrate to the Hebrews that they have another option. Until now their only gods were the gods of Egypt, even if they had some dusty memories of the God of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov.
Last week we read of Moshe’s promise of freedom. That turned out to be catastrophic. Pharaoh said: “Why are distracting the nation from their work? Let them go back to their misery.” And he doubled their work. There’s no way the people will follow Moshe and his God now.
Some action is needed. Comes plague one, blood, and the Israelites are in shock. The great Nile, the source of Egypt’s wealth and produce is paralyzed. One god has been struck dead! They are even more astounded when frogs disrupt the lives of their Egyptian masters. And lice, and wild beasts and boils and hail. With each additional plague, another god of Egypt bites the dust. Pharaoh and his magicians and his wise men become ever more cognizant of their limitations in this conflict against the God of Israel.
In a way, the situation in Egypt is repeated soon afterwards in the desert. Remember the Israelites wandered for two years before coming near Canaan, and then they sent the spies who brought back a discouraging report. The people panicked and another 38 years were added to their desert sojourn. From the start, it was unreasonable to expect a bunch of former slaves to become a free people in two years. As Rabbi A.B. Bonnheim notes, even Maimonides was of the opinion that a people born into slavery cannot understand what it means to be a free people. That’s why they had to perish in the desert.
Like the former slaves in the desert, the Israelites in Egypt could not grasp the idea of being beholden to a different God – in this case one God. The power the Egyptian gods had over them was too great. So if it took 40 years in the desert for the people to believe that they could enter the land, it is certainly logical that ten plagues were not too many if Moshe wanted to gain the people’s belief and confidence in the ancient God of their ancestors.
Moshe first gave them a glimmer of hope that was very quickly dashed. The plagues, one after the other, gave the Israelites the spark of hope and belief that they needed.
We all need someone and something to believe in. It is mind-boggling how many different ideas and beliefs are peddled to us by our politicians and leaders, our religious establishment, our economic advisers, our favorite op-ed writers, and our gurus of various approaches to the good life.
The probing of some journalists has uncovered details about alleged crimes and misdemeanors by many of our leaders. The tapes that were revealed of the cabinet meetings during the Protective Edge campaign of two and a half years ago either strengthen our beliefs or dash them on the rocks of what seems to be reality.
But there is hope. A new president has taken office in America, and according to his spokeswoman (this is real!), we don’t have to accept things if we don’t like them. We can offer what she (and others) call “alternative facts.” The first example was the size of the crowd at the inauguration. Was it larger than the Obama crowd? Pictures say no. Trump says yes. The spokeswoman says, this is a legitimate alternative fact.
So, the message to us all is that we have entered a new era, not of virtual reality (boring!) but of a reality made up of alternative facts. You don’t like what happened, give another version that you do like. Politicians do it all the time. In fact, Pharaoh used this approach too. He said I’ll let the people go. He recanted – so what? His first statement was an alternative to what he wanted to do. We can use it too. But carefully.