Plague is a word we rarely hear in our everyday lives, except in history lessons about Medieval Europe or hyperbolic vitriol on our TV screens. Yet, think both of the context of Exodus as well as your own day to day – what plagues you? What are the hardships you suffer? They could be grand like money or dealing with prejudices and discrimination. They could be personal, like a bully, your health, or what about heartbreak and social pressure, especially in this digital age that heightens just about everything – especially loneliness.
One can read the Ten Plagues literally, but Torah urges us to see what the elements of G-d’s wrath represent. This further begs the question, are they punishment or self-destruction? The sad truth of life is that often times it is destructive force that opens our eyes to a greater understandings. However, the severity of the plagues shows how painful it can be when the pendulum swings.
A profound lesson of Pesach is to strive to prevent suffering unconditionally. Moshe had the world on a platter when he struck the Egyptian taskmaster, he did so as soon as he witnessed the brutal suffering of a slave, despite being the two having radically different life experiences.
The fact that Moshe saved one of his kin is not a lesson to protect one’s own, but to remember that even the most unlikely people are connected to us. One shouldn’t have to suffer in order to step in and help another. One should be more wary that personal prosperity does not cancel out awareness of exterior suffering.
In the case of Exodus, the plagues were not revenge. They were the destructive forces brought on the Egyptians, not simply for enslaving a people, but for their ignorance to the suffering of the Israelites; forgetting the pain of others and in fact benefiting from it.
While it is said that HaShem turned Pharaoh’s heart to stone, the people of Egypt had a chance to follow their undeterred consciences…and did not. It took the illuminating despair of victimhood, Ten Plagues, each worse than the next, that woke the Egyptians from their privilege to finally understand suffering and transform from oppressors to humans once again.
The Ten Plagues are a lesson in empathy and understanding. Everyday people go through struggles, and while some are far more grave than others, it is important not to compare and contrast, but simply assist in relieving hardships – seeing suffering and remembering what it was like when you too suffered in your life.
When we shut out and wall off those outside ourselves, we fall victim to the plagues of mind, body, and spirit, decaying our humanity until we remember our place in the wide world, not as the center of it.
This piece was composed for my haggadah this year, to be read before the Ten Plagues. Feel free to read it at your own seder if you feel so inclined. Chag Sameach.
Gregory Uzelac is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @greguzelac.