A couple of days ago my four year-old twin sons came home from kindergarten and told me about the Tenth Plague – the Plague of the Firstborns. They told me that in this Plague the older brothers died. They don’t fully comprehend the concept of death yet, but understand that it’s a bad thing. Suddenly, one of them said with fear: “Dad, we are Shahar’s older brothers.” His and his twin brother’s faces changed. Mine also turned white.
The Plague of the Firstborns was God’s greatest blow to the Egyptians in order to liberate our people, a people of slaves whom the government abused and whose sons it even murdered at times. It is very difficult to explain this Plagueto a young child, but not only because he is four years old. By modern codes, this Plague was immoral and unacceptable. However, it was created out of a difficult reality and consciousness of slavery. The legitimacy of the Ten Plagues in Egypt and a long list of other acts of violence and warfare that appear in the Torah and in Jewish history, stems from our being a persecuted and battered people fighting for their freedom.
These stories created hope for a humiliated and oppressed nation. These stories taught us not to give up our freedom and dignity and to know, even in times of crisis, that they are within reach. Today we must ask what is the impact of these stories on us in an era of sovereignty and power?
Sovereignty is a wonderful challenge. Simultaneously, one of its deepest dangers is to be in a state of freedom but to be run by a consciousness of slavery.
In a time of enslavement, we must act with a consciousness of survival and exert almost every means at our disposal to regain control over our lives. The opposite is true in freedom- part of being free is to know that nothing threatens your existence; That you can walk with your head up and not be afraid of any threat, mental or physical; That you must replace the Egyptian thinking that sees a stranger and chooses to “make life bitter for them with harsh labor”, by the thinking of those that went through Exodus who are commanded to “love the stranger” and the weak; We must know that the commanding of ten violent and terrible Plagues is a means used by the humiliated slaves and not the free man.
In an unusual text written by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century, he writes that when a Jewish state is established, we will have to base it on two principles – grace and equality in our law – ” These principles will be tested especially in Israel’s attitude toward non-jews: they will enjoy all the rights that the law grants to citizens and an attitude of love and kindness. These will be a reliable measure of the level of humanity and respect in the state.” (See his commentary on Exodus 23: 9).
It is easier to take the Israelites out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of them. Educators in modern Israel must find a way to responsibly teach the Ten Plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea, the war against Amalek and the seven nations, and many other stories such as the story of the Jews avenging their enemies on Purim or the stories of the Maccabees on Hanukkah. This is a complex and difficult task, but it is critical in our process of exiting slavery and entering a state of freedom. We cannot conduct ourselves in a manner of freedom from a consciousness of slavery. We must close the gap between the reality of our lives and our national psychology, and truly emerge from slavery into freedom.
Translated from Hebrew by Amalya L. Grodzinsky