Parashat Vaeira describes the first part of the confrontation between God and Paraoh. God states the divine motivation clearly. Hashem tells Moshe: When Paraoh does not listen to you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people, Benei Yisrael, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary phenomena. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring Israel from their midst.” (Shemot 7:4-5) The parasha describes the first seven of the ten makkot, plagues. God is not sending these plagues against Egypt primarily as a punishment. Quite the contrary. God hopes to humble Egypt through a series of pandemics.
In our current reality, our encounter with the natural force of a virus has brought the world to its knees. The pandemic crushes societies. It humbles medical practitioners. It devours political leaders unable to bow to its non-partisan power. God sent Moshe as an emissary to warn the leader of the greatest civilization in the world that he and his society would be forced to acknowledge the uncontrollable mysteries of the universe. The phenomena they will experience will produce panic, suffering, and trauma, but those same phenomena could also transform the mind-set of Egypt by evoking a sense of awe. Paraoh bows temporarily time and again, but then returns stubbornly to his own self-importance. He resists humility. The rabbis interpret his natural predisposition of having a “hardened heart” as a metaphor for deep rage. (Shemot Rabbah 9:6) The political and social remedy to the plagues of Egypt was quite simple; it resided in the human heart that God had hoped would prevail. The remedy lay in Paraoh’s capacity to see the suffering he caused, and to respond with a broken heart by freeing Israel from enslavement. Instead, Paraoh kept his heart heavy and weighted. In ancient Egyptian culture, when one died, one’s heart was placed on a scale opposite a feather. If the feather balanced the heart, one entered paradise. If one’s heart was heavier than the feather, one’s afterlife was condemned. (The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes this tradition.) Since the confrontation is between Paraoh and God, and not merely between two people, the implications are far-reaching.
I read this confrontation between Paraoh and God as a paradigm for the conflict between ultra-nationalism and a universalistic humanity. Classic assumptions behind the modern concept of nationalism include the belief that a group of people who share a common history, language, and culture, have the right to sovereignty in a national homeland as an expression of their self-determination. A malignant form of nationalism, however, is called, “ultra-nationalism.” Ultra-nationalism is characterized by a deep fear of difference, a xenophobia of anyone labeled as an outsider, an immigrant, an alien. Ultra-nationalism promotes the self-interests, or the perceived self-interests of the nation at all costs with no moral regard for how those interests affect minority outsiders within the borders of that society. Ultra-nationalism is often characterized by extreme and violent methods employed to terrorize populations into submission to the ruling order. That order is typically led by an autocratic, charismatic leader who behaves with impunity to secure his/her own base of power.
An ultra-nationalistic state is also often characterized by a caste system through which a minority sub-culture is exploited through a variety of “legal” mechanisms that ensure social control of that group. Ultra-nationalists and fascists often share methods of control and exerting power. A society can even project a mythology for itself of human dignity, compassion, and well-being, while simultaneously nourishing deep-seated hatreds and fears of others. Such a dynamic can compel a society to find insidious ways to implement social control of minority groups. When that happens, it is particularly difficult to penetrate popular rhetoric and perceive deeper truths. (This phenomenon is developed by Herbert Marcuse in, One Dimensional Man) This is the case of the United States of America. America is a society with a governance structure and constitution designed to protect the rights and dignities of its citizens while simultaneously having relied on the perpetual dehumanization of people of color and other minorities to build its physical infrastructure and sustain its economy. Until those two realities are reconciled, it remains very difficult to perceive the underlying patterns of abuse that characterize the society. Nevertheless, like Paraoh’s anger and fear, violent expressions of those deeply felt emotions have exploded recently with terrifying impact. This comparison also illuminates Paraoh’s fears, anger and obstinacy.
Paraoh created an exploitative caste system. Under Yosef, Egyptians and Israelites acknowledged and respected each other’s differences. They ate together, but observed certain protocols that structured those meals. Bene Yisrael lived in their own territory. However, they were welcomed throughout society. They distinguished themselves. They made constructive contributions to society. God had told Avraham in chapter 15 of Bereshit that his ancestors would live as a minority population in a great society. God also told Avraham that that host society would turn corrupt, but that the people would emerge the better for that experience. They would gain an indelible memory of oppression that could serve as an antidote to the seductive allure of becoming abusive as a majority, sovereign nation in their promised homeland.
I am suggesting that God sent Bene Yisrael to live temporarily in Egypt in order to gain an existential muscle for resisting sameness, conformity, submission to human power, abuse, the drive for wealth at all costs, mendacity, and cruelty. That muscle would have to be exercised and stretched daily, monthly, and annually through spiritual practices. However, if kept toned, Jewish peoplehood would always be able to protect the vulnerable, execute justice tempered by compassion, and take honest, transparent responsibility for any travesty of justice that would occur within our precincts.
The association between a commitment to compassion at all costs and Jewish peoplehood is so foundational, that the midrashic teaching of this connection found its way into codes of Jewish law. In a section of Choshen Mishpat dealing with torts, the law was established that the litigant must ask the victim of damages for forgiveness after paying any compensation required by the court. Once the case reaches that moment, the plaintiff is obligated to forgive the defendant, for to refuse would be cruel. The code says, “… cruelty is not compatible with what it means to be a descendent of the seed of Avraham.” (see, Talmud, Baba Batra 92a). The commentary Meir Einayim on the phrase, the seed of Avraham wrote: “Our version of the text reads, ‘seed of Israel.’ This is because three qualities of character must characterize a descendent of Avraham: a sense of shame, kindness, and compassion. And the opposite of compassionate, is “cruel.” (see further, R Ovadiah Bartenura on Pirke Avot 5:20, and Talmud Yevamot 79a) That is what God intended for us to learn. To be a Jew requires acting with a sense of shame, compassion, and kindness. Refusing to forgive, to make amends, to compromise, to open one’s heart to another whom one engaged in dispute or serious altercation, results in the legal status of “cruel.”
This is the conflict between Paraoh and God, with Moshe as God’s mouthpiece. This confrontation marks the birth of the Jewish nation. This is a conflict in the social and political sphere, between ultra-nationalism and humanistic democracy. It is a conflict between abuse and celebration, between autocratic control and the freedom of responsible self-expression. This confrontation matches the dignity of humanity against dehumanizing the other into a socially controlled work force and enslaved caste. That is what is at stake in this confrontation. This confrontation asks us: what world will humanity create?
Midrash VaYosha, an 11th century work that interprets the miracle of the splitting of the sea, offers a perspective on the ten plagues. It is a fascinating interpretation. Each plague represents a counter-balance to a different form of exploitation and control. Collectively, this midrash teaches that once one peels away all the layers of supremacist arrogance, xenophobia, cruelty, control and violence, one finds simply a narcissistic compulsion to hold on to power, wealth, and entitlement:
These are the ten plagues the Holy One brought against the Egyptians. The first plague was blood. God brought blood against Egypt because the Egyptians prevented the Jewish women from using the mikveh. The second plague was frogs, because the Egyptians said to the slaves: bring us fish and other creatures from the sea. The third plague was lice, because the Egyptians said to the slaves: sweep our houses and our courtyards and our marketplaces, so the dust of the ground turned to lice. The fourth plague were wild animals, because the Egyptians told the slaves: go hunt for us. The fifth plague was cattle disease, because the Egyptians said to the slaves: go and shepherd our flocks. The sixth plague were boils, because the Egyptians said to the slaves: serve us in our bathhouses. The seventh plague was hail, because the Egyptians told the slaves: plow and sow our fields, and then harvest our crops. The eighth plague was locust, because the Egyptians said to the slaves, Go and harvest our orchards and collect the produce. The ninth plague was darkness, because of the sins the Egyptians perpetrated against the Children of Israel.
Up until this point, the midrash is describing the economics of oppression. The ninth plague makes a transition to the final plague which out-weighs all the others:
The tenth plague was the death of the first born. Before this plague, Moshe went to the first borns of Egypt and said to them, “At midnight, God is going to enter Egypt and kill every first born.” They immediately went to their fathers and told them. Their fathers told them, “Go to Pharaoh, for he, too, is a first born.” Pharaoh heard and told his servants: “You are either with me or against me! You must be strong and respond with violence!” Immediately, the first borns took weapons and slaughtered their fathers…..(Midrash VaYosha, 11th c.)
The older generation were rational. Perhaps they even had a moral compass. “Let them go. The cost of oppression is too great.” Their children, however, would not risk losing their privilege. Stop the movement towards, “Israelite Lives Matter.” They supported Paraoh, and slaughtered their fathers. Perhaps what made Paraoh so desperate and tenacious was the humanity of the Israelites. They wanted to leave and pray to God. He could not allow that; they were slaves, sub-human, other.
The language of the plagues also suggests that the struggle between ultra-nationalism and a diverse, universalistic humanity, has cosmic implications for the existence of the planet. The plagues can be read, from this perspective, as an undoing of the creation narratives at the beginning of Sefer Bereshit. Both the creation of the natural world and the plagues begin with water. Creation culminates with life, and the plagues open with blood, the nefesh, the essence of life. The next three plagues are frogs, lice and ‘arov. The best known interpretation of ‘arov is “wild animals.” However, an alternative tradition understands ‘arov as “swarming insects,” like wasps and hornets and flies. This means that these plagues pollute the water, the earth and the air. The next two plagues infect the bodies of creatures living on the land–mammals and humans. These are cattle disease and boils. Locusts destroy vegetation. Finally, whereas God initiates creation with light that ultimately produces the energy for life, the plagues end with the opposite–darkness and death. (For a fuller explication of this interpretation, see, Tzioni Zevit, Invoking Creation in the Story of the Ten Plagues) The plagues are an un-doing of the natural world. Set in the context of the ultra-nationalistic, nativistic, oppressive, hateful enslavement of the Israelites, the Torah is teaching us that unless humanity embraces with compassion and love the diversities with which God originally designed and created the world, hatred and cruelty will destroy it. God entrusted God’s most precious creation to us, with all of the love and expectations and hopes of a parent. Through loathing, cruelty, and fear, a leader like Paraoh, an ancient paradigm of a fascist authoritarian, can undo the work of creation. He will methodically destroy every ecological balance in the natural, cultural and socio-economic worlds by exploiting them for his own personal gain and power.
The confrontation between God and Paraoh is a warning. Moshe, a visionary with a speech impediment, spoke strongly and clearly, for all to hear: “Let My people go to worship the Creator in the wilderness.” Only strong voices of compassion, upholding human dignity and the sanctity of life, can defeat the evil of falsehood, fear, greed and arrogance.