The Ten Plagues that befall the people of Egypt provide us with disturbing questions about the cost of radical change and the problem of collective punishment. Starting with this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and extending into the next two portions, Bo and B’Shellach, we are confronted with the escalating power struggle between God and Pharaoh, a terrible tug of war, in which the Hebrew and Egyptian people are relegated to playing the role of the rope.
As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, points out, each of us has an inner Moses and an inner Pharaoh. Our inner Moses hates escalating the stakes of the conflict but sees no other choice. Remember that while Moses is genetically and emotionally a Hebrew, his education and acculturation are Egyptian. Neither the household of Pharaoh, nor the people of Egypt are simple, two-dimensional enemies from his perspective. Neither God nor Moses denounces the Egyptian people writ large. They denounce Pharaoh and decry slavery, an evil, hateful, and brutal practice that the tyrant insists on maintaining at any cost. The situation is not so simple for Pharaoh either. A power struggle by definition extends beyond the initial issue or conflict, devolving from particulars into a fight over authority and decision making powers. The struggle with the Israelites, Moses, and God is not only about slavery for Pharaoh. It’s about losing absolute control, an anathema to absolute monarchs. “If I cave in on slavery today, then what will people think they can get me to relinquish tomorrow?”
Pharaoh is not only an evil tyrant, but also a tragic one. It is not until the suffering of the plagues affects him personally that he concedes defeat. Absolutism, with its incumbent slavery and tyranny, is Pharaoh’s addiction. Pharaoh is a slave to slavery. He is in total denial about the severity of the consequences that his stubbornness brings upon his people. Pharaoh was plagued long before the Ten Plagues ever began. May his incredible ability to ignore the suffering of others and tragic inability to admit when he is wrong, serve as a cautionary tale for all people, all places and all times.
Parasha Va’era, 5776 • January 2016