This chapter records the final three devastating plagues that befall Egypt and force Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave. The chapter also establishes the calendar which is, itself, a major tool of a free people. I am not going to focus on that part of this chapter which is relatively accessible. This chapter leaves us with more questions than answers.
- Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” (EX 10:1-2)
Here we go again. Gd seems to work against his very objective: to free the Israelites. It is very difficult to understand what the Torah means telling us that Gd hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to display his majesty. It seems frankly perverse. The rabbis themselves twisted themselves into intellectual pretzels trying to make sense of the idea. But here is a thought which I credit to Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky with thanks: Pharaoh had bad habits. His reflex was to say “no” and to hunker down. He could not change and so he had a hard (stubborn) heart. Rabbi Kalmanofsky points out that bad habits are transformed when we act daily. To give $1.00 in charity each day for a hundred days is worth far more than to give $100 once. Why? Because the daily act and awareness transform us! Pharaoh was incapable of this kind of change (sadly!).
- Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the LORD their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (EX 10:7)
Pharaoh’s advisors are more alert and aware than Pharaoh himself. Vain leaders do not listen to their own advisors! (And they often finish by simply firing them).
- Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (EX 10:21-23).
This is an often overlooked plague: darkness. But because it is the least tangible, the least understandable, it may be the most frightening. “A darkness that can be touched”. This is no ordinary darkness, no ordinary night. This is absolute blindness. This is a kind of suffocation. And, of course, the Israelites had light. They could “see”. And they could breathe…..or so they thought.
- The 10th plague: terror!
Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again; but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast—in order that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (EX 11:4-8)
This is an agonizing passage: Egypt’s loud cry “such as has never been heard” recalls Esau’s sobbing. It is heartbreaking. As Pharaoh sought to kill the Israelite male babies, so now the firstborn of Egypt will die. And there is bitter irony in that here the first born are taken yet these same first born have been “passed over” from the beginning of Genesis in the Israelite family story.
- “Let my people go……”.
As often, we keep one part of a sentence in our minds (and hearts) but forget its origin and meaning. The full command from Gd to Moses to tell Pharaoh is “Let my people go that they may worship me”. And this is repeated more than ten times (probably more) in the text. What does it mean “…to worship me”? It means many things. It means that liberation comes with responsibility and obligation. We cannot be liberated until we are ready to be responsible, until we are ready to accept that we are part of something greater than our individual selves. It means that community, citizenship and membership matter!
Important notes this week:
- The 10th plague forces us to ask if violence is necessary, sometimes, to make needed change. Does the end justify the means? I am grateful to Rabbi Marcus Mordechai Schwartz for introducing me to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister who resisted the Nazis in Germany with great courage and paid for his conviction with his life. Schwartz writes: “Bonhoeffer is credited with saying that the job of religion is to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable. Neither of those tasks is easy, but at least the first is more palatable. We don’t like to see religion, especially prophetic religion, as a wrecking ball. But sometimes it can be, and legitimately so.” Strong and difficult words and thoughts. May the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer be a blessing.
- The beginning of this week was Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the United States. Our American Moses. In tribute, the featured photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. (at the top of the commentary) and the wonderful rendition here of “Go Down Moses” by Louis Armstrong. May Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory continue to be a blessing for all Americans and for the world.
Louis Armstrong “Go Down Moses”