Mordechai Soskil

Paroh Was an Anti-Vaxxer

This week’s Torah reading and the two weeks before tell the story of the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt and their miraculous salvation. The narrative of the Ten Plagues take center stage during many of these chapters. Each year during these Torah readings, and once again during the Passover season, one has to wonder at the stubbornness and perhaps the sheer audacity of Paroh.

Let’s start with a question that is rather obvious. Why did G-d want to do all these plagues? If He is all big and Creator-y then why not just say, “Attention, Egypt! We shall be leaving now! Thank you all and G-d bless.” Then magic carpet ride everyone to Sinai, and if Egypt tried to stop it then just magic-force-field protect the Jews. Why not just leave? What was the point in the plagues?

It’s worth noting that G-d actually tells us what the point in the plagues is. In Ex. 7:17, before the first Plague G-d says, “With this he will know that I am the Lord.” The word for “Lord” in that verse is the Tetragrammaton, the name of G-d that points towards His essence as being timeless, as being Is/Was/Will Be. In other words, that I am G-d Creator. In Ex. 8:18, before the 4th plague of Wild Animals, G-d says that these plagues will make obvious the distinction between where the Jews live and the rest of Egypt, “in order to make known that I am the Lord in the midst of the land.” That is, G-d is not just a Creator who wound up the clockworks of the universe and then moved on to another project. G-d continues to be interested in the Earth and its people. Oh, and by the way, the Jewish people are special. And finally, in Ex. 9:14, before the plague of Hail, which was so famously mixed with fire, G-d said that the plagues were there “in order for you to know that the is none like Me in the midst of the land.” For the polytheists of the day this must have been the most jarring lesson. All of the forces of the universe that they imagined were controlled by different deities were in fact unified under the control of G-d. Because there is only One G-d, one Creator.

(Two notes, at the seder we always says, “Rabbi Yehudah gave them [the plagues] an acronym, DaTzA”CH Ada”SH and B’ACHaV.” Everyone always asks, “what’s the point in that? We just said the 10 plagues. Why this weird acronym and why the chunking of them into these groups.” A careful reading will show that Rabbi Yehudah’s grouping of the plagues corresponds to the three chunks outlined above. His point seems to be that each of these groups of plagues was to teach a different lesson. The second note is that this idea is not original to me. I saw it first in the Drash Moshe of the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.)

So the point of the plagues was to teach Paroh and all of Egypt and the Jewish People, and humanity for all times, these three great axioms of Jewish theology: 1) G-d is Creator beyond time and space 2) G-d is still involved in this world and has a special relationship with the Children of Abraham and 3) there is just the One G-d. Not one special one in a pantheon. Just One.

The evidence for these truths was literally piling up all around Paroh and yet he still refuses to accept it. Amazing. The Torah describes this as a “hardening of his heart.” The language here I think is rather interesting. The heart is the seat of feelings and emotion whereas thought and logic are in the mind. It seems as though all of the evidence that G-d was bringing to Paroh made sense. It was logical and he could understand it. But logic and knowledge doesn’t make people change their actions, only feelings to that.

And this I believe is the great lesson for our time. Knowledge and facts don’t make people change their behavior. Actions are controlled by feelings.

That’s why people who can use the advanced technology afforded us by science such as smart phones and the internet become magical thinking troglodytes when it comes to vaccines. They have a belief and no amount of evidence can uproot that belief. Because facts don’t change actions. Only feelings do that.

That’s why people who only 4 or 5 years ago believed in the big ideas of G-d and Country and the honest decency and trustworthiness of our men and women sworn to serve the country can back an uncouth rabble-rouser in defiance of the values they once believed. He gave them a feeling. He made them feel heard and important and valued in a way they hadn’t before. So they changed their beliefs and now they follow their pied-piper, American values be damned.

That’s why people who used to believe in the great Liberal ideas of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship are bullied by the politics of intersectionality. They feel guilt over their success and the inequities in the world. They hope to assuage that guilt by sacrificing their most treasured values on the altar of a New Progressive World Order. No evidence of the history of socialism, no facts of the difference between a defensive force and barbaric terrorism, no truths about the real nature of freedom will change their actions. They are behaving based on a feeling and all evidence taken in is judged within that context.

That’s why people can believe that 10,000 scientists from every relevant field can say climate change is real and it’s because of us, and two guys can say, “um, not necessarily,” and they feel like it’s an open question. Because fact don’t change people’s actions in our world. Only feelings do that.

That’s why Flat Earthers, and Ant-Vaxxers and every other ding dong and yahoo can’t been made to believe something different despite the fact that GPS works and small pox is gone. They have a feeling and they interpret facts within the context of those feelings.

So what can we do? The message to my fellow educators and fellow parents is, I think, clear. If facts and ideas don’t change behavior then we need to also be in the business of feelings. We need our talmidim (students) and our biological children to feel loved, by the Creator and by us. We need our talmidim to love Shabbos. We need our children to feel proud to be Jewish. We need all of them to feel like they and the choices they make matter.

To do that we have to continue the great work we do of making school go beyond the classroom. We need to recognize the vital importance of Shabbatonim and other programming to creating those feelings. And at home we have to do the work of making the Shabbos table engaging and our relationships meaningful.

Paroh just wouldn’t let the facts in front of him make the trip from his mind to heart. He didn’t change his behavior because he couldn’t change his feelings. Let’s make this easier for our students and our children. Let’s be sure to touch their hearts.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.