And now: an update from the royal palace in Egypt many years ago. It does not look good!
Or perhaps we should say: It does not look good for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Up to this point in the Book of Exodus, seven plagues had ravaged their land, their waters and their crops. And these plagues had ravaged their lives in other ways as well.
Gone was their sense of predictability, and their ability to have a sense of what might come to pass next in a day, in a week, maybe even in many months. Gone was any potential they once had to place trust in their leader.
Not even Pharaoh’s courtiers could get through to him — early in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, they say to him point-blank: “How long will this one [Moses] be a snare to us? Let them go! Don’t you know yet that Egypt is lost?”
If we put ourselves in their shoes, we can feel the betrayal of this people. We can also see, through the eyes of Pharaoh’s advisors, what Pharaoh himself could not see. As Jews, this story is our central narrative of freedom and uplift. It sweeps us forward into greater collective purpose than before. But imagine if the story were told through different eyes — those of the Egyptian people whose existence as they knew it effectively ended just as ours began to blossom. Even though we are the ones driving the action and the meaning, the Torah – and certainly later rabbinic writing – does hint at this interplay of joy and sorrow.
When the litany of plagues first began, Pharaoh hardened his heart. But beginning with the sixth plague, the Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart for him, almost as though he was on a runaway train and had forfeited his ability to compromise or change. It is a hard heart indeed that cannot yield, that equates compassion with weakness, that refuses to accept any sources of wisdom other than his or her own. And while Jewish teachings emphasize that the gates of teshuvah — of true repentance and recommitting to right paths — are always open, the process can only happen with our humility and participation.
Unpredictability, lack of trust, hearts unsure at best, deeply wounded at worst — how might we do better?
We would all like to think that we would have done better in Pharaoh’s place. And while I believe that is so, I also look at the world we inhabit now, thousands of years after the events of Bo. It is nowhere near as difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the Egyptian people as it may have been in other years. Unpredictability, lack of trust, hearts unsure at best, deeply wounded at worst — how might we do better?
Bo brings us to the penultimate plague; the ninth of 10. It is the plague of darkness, which fell upon the Egyptians while all the Israelites “enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Some might ask, compared to all that had already happened, what was so terrible about darkness? Darkness didn’t ruin their water, get under their skin or wipe out their livestock. But this particular darkness was so dark, and so thick, that the people could not move for three whole days. Darkness on its own is many things: scary, dispiriting and, well — dark! But when darkness immobilizes us and keeps us feeling isolated and powerless, then it is a true plague. The Egyptians could not move towards each other. They could not connect. They could not lay a hand on a shoulder or help each other.
We, however, can. These are some of the things that help usher in light, even if they don’t banish the darkness entirely. This is how we do better. Our sages teach that it is only when we reach past darkness — when we can find hope, find connection, find ways to move forward together — that the plagues lessen. And then we, like those who came before us, will enjoy light in our dwellings, and will grow in our ability to be sources of light to others in a dark world.