One doesn’t have to look deeply into this week’s parashah to find parallels into our current state of affairs. In the second section of Exodus, Moses has emerged as the leader of the Israelites, and with G!D’s support, is spearheading a protest campaign to free his enslaved community. The vicious Egyptian ruler Pharaoh is refusing to negotiate in good faith and continues to punish a weak and vulnerable population. G!D proceeds, instructing Moses and Aaron to beset several devastating plagues upon Egypt, each progressively increasing pressure on Pharaoh to change his mind and let the Israel people go.
Navigating the realities of a pervasive, community-wide plague continues to be very real experience for many of us, and even more so for the current residents of Beit T’Shuvah. A plague has descended, and we are forced to accept the restrictive implications necessary to keep us safe. The current outbreak of COVID infections has forced our program to take drastic measures that limit movement, community gatherings, and many other aspects of healthy living. Having to the live in acceptance of this reality is a day by day, or even hour by hour choice that continually challenges our sense of freedom.
It seems apparent that Pharaoh also struggled with threats to his sense of freedom. With all of his oppressive stubbornness, he serves as an archetype of denial and self-centeredness that reflects many patterns of addicts in their addiction. The root of his problem (and of ours) is that he seems constitutionally incapable of accepting the sovereignty of a Power Greater Than Himself. Pharaoh continually insists that he alone is all-powerful and is able to get the world around him (people, places, and things) to bend to his will. We hear G!D say at the outset:
“…I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt… And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord…” (Exodus 7:3, 5).
Consequently, it seems that one of the primary purposes of the plagues is to inflict enough pain and suffering onto Pharaoh and the Egyptians that he (and they) are willing to surrender and accept the limitations to their power. Had they done so…
Struggling with surrender and acceptance is a familiar experience for many of us, especially when dealing with circumstances beyond our control. Amidst the disruption and loss that we are currently experiencing due to the pandemic, it can be a challenge to find meaning amidst the disconnection from many of the roles, routines, and relationships we had established. In her blog, “Doing Life” Harriet quotes a friend who, while quarantined in a small room alone, has risen to this challenge: “I have my weights, my yoga mat, books, meditation apps – a full and meaningful day.”
Curiously, in Midrash Shemot Rabbah (10:2) the Rabbis who searched to find meaning in the plagues noted that they were, in one instance, beneficial for the Egyptians: “The plagues which the Almighty brought upon the Egyptians caused them to make peace…” How did this happen? Egypt had an ongoing border dispute with a neighboring country, and Moses had warned Pharaoh before the plague that frogs would strike “kol gevulkha” – literally, “all your boundary” (Exodus 7:27). Subsequently, when all the frogs appeared, they affected only the Egyptian territory, stopping at their borders. Thus the plague of frogs inadvertently determined exactly which land belonged to Egypt and which did not, resolving the conflict.
What lessons might this Midrash be conveying with this seemingly tangential story about the plague of frogs?
On one level, maybe we are being encouraged to find the “silver lining” in even the most challenging of situations. Even when we encounter the difficult “plagues” of our lives, we can strive to identify some beneficial outcomes of the crisis. As Harriet reminds us, many have found in their recovery that some of the worst experiences in their lives are able to be transformed into meaningful and powerful moments that propel them forward:
I thought about all the “lifers” I had met over the years who spent decades in a small cell, not only not going nuts, but thriving physically, growing emotionally and spiritually. They were the most resilient and exalted people I had ever known. I was humbled by the freedom they found in imprisonment, the willingness to “choose life.”
On another level, this is a story about boundaries, humility, and clarity. Enslavement stems from the belief in one’s right to encroach upon another person’s “territory,” including their personal space and freedom. The Egyptians felt entitled to enslave a vulnerable people and to exploit them for their own self-interest. The midrash reminds us that by not respecting the boundaries of the Israelites, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were stuck in their own enslavement: insisting that the world should work according to only their rules. They, themselves, were trapped by their refusal to accept the world as it is. Rabbi Heschel described this dynamic (and the path of recovery) when he wrote:
The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai! (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 103)
When we indulge in our inclination to manipulate, deceive, and exploit others, we perpetuate not only their enslavement but ours, as well. Tough times, when we may feel trapped and in a narrow place, lend themselves to these indulgences. Peace is achieved when we stay right-sized and respect boundaries. As we see in the midrash about the frogs, G!D provides this clarity to the Egyptians and it results in the gift of peace. Regrettably, it seems that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were too blinded by their own arrogance to welcome this with gratitude, instead continuing to insist on “their way” until it led to their demise.
During this time of continued restriction and separation, may we draw strength and guidance from the enduring wisdom of our tradition to help us move into 2022 with an awareness of the opportunities available to us.
And Happy New Year!
Chaplain Adam Siegel