Plagues and Plagues: Egypt and the Rhythms of Recent History

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Pesah is upon us, novel coronavirus or no. The virus has focused my attention on an aspect of the Exodus I had failed to connect to our times as clearly as it merits. To start, I present for your consideration a group of people we may neglect in our reviews of the Exodus: the Egyptians.

We notice Pharaoh’s blocking the Jews’ leaving, and give a free pass to the Egyptian people, yet the Torah hints they had more power than they or we choose to realize. Before the plague of hail, some of Pharaoh’s retinue took their servants and animals out of the fields, had them shelter (and survive) inside, and the Torah calls them ha-yarei et devar Hashem, those who feared the word of Gd (faint praise, but praise). After Moshe announced looming locusts, at the beginning of Bo, Pharaoh’s attendants pressured him into calling Moshe back for a (failed) negotiation.

That seems as far as they went. As their world collapsed around them, over the course of a year, the Egyptian people could not rouse itself to insist Pharaoh change strategies. As I say that, I hear voices who would insist they had no options, Pharaoh was their ruler, what could they do? I think it vital to remind ourselves the cruelest of dictators always have a supporting apparatus, can only impose their will with the help of others.

I think of Tiananmen Square in this context. China in the late 1980s already had a billion people, ten thousand of whom filled the Square to protest government excesses. The government squashed it by rolling out tanks and soldiers, killing and wounding thousands.

Now for the thought experiment: had a million people massed in the square, would or could the government have handled it the same way? What about ten million (one percent of a billion)? We excuse the populace of tyrannies too quickly, I believe, are too understanding of their desire to protect themselves and their families, not to rock the boat.

But let’s say I’m being excessive, because some dictators will kill however many it takes. Let’s focus instead on those the ruler needs to cooperate. They do not rule on their own, after all, they rule either because the populace likes them, excesses aside (as seems true of the Russians under Putin, for example; it implicates them in any wrongs he may perpetrate), or because s/he has enough of a political and military apparatus to enforce his/her will. If soldiers, advisers, and lackeys said no, the ruler will back down or be deposed.

The success of evil leaders, we need to remember, is never their own; the blame and guilt for his/her evil never stops at the top. To get back to Pharaoh: a week after the Exodus, he found a full complement of soldiers and charioteers ready to chase down the Jews at the sea.

I first thought of the point while writing As If We Were There, my book about Pesah. This year, I thought of a detail of the story, the rhythm of the plagues. Rashi Shemot 7;25 tells us each plague lasted a week, with a three-week lull before the next. One week on, three weeks off, I suggest, gave the Egyptians time to lose sight of how bad it had been. During a plague, it’s horrible. After it goes away (on a dime, in contrast to what we expect with the novel coronavirus), the first week is recovery. The second week, they still remember. By the third week, life can return to normal, the threat of another plague too distant to compete with getting back to living.

In contemporary terms, I remember the assertions life would never be the same after 9/11, after the Great Recession, and now. Each time (perhaps this time will be different), some parts of life change, but not anything overarchingly or obviously significant.

The Egyptians’ immunity to the message of the plagues, their never standing up to Pharaoh and insisting he let the Jews go, concede Gd’s rule over the world, Gd’s right and ability to demand the Jews go serve in the desert, reminds me of many moderns’ immunity to seeing Gd in history. As I found myself checking over and over to see whether the coronavirus was truly parallel to the Spanish flu of 1918-1920, I kept stumbling across other troubles the world has contended with in the last century:

There was an encephalitis lethargica outbreak for a decade starting in 1915, killing over a million people. Aside from the Spanish flu, flus in 1957, 1968, and 2009 killed more than a million people (worldwide) each. Polio peaked in the forties and fifties, paralyzing or killing over a half million people a year. and measles used to kill a million a year, aside from the ones it maimed. AIDs has killed many millions, starting in the 1980s.

Moving away from disease, war and recessions crop up regularly, too, as do other tragedies. You may dismiss these last as man-made, except we can always dismiss—those who see disease as “natural” also excuse themselves from learning any lessons.

Once a decade, or more, for a hundred years, “extraordinary” “black swan” negative events have hit the world, and people have addressed them, more or less, the same way—taking on the specific trouble and how to recover from it, even prevent a recurrence. Sometimes better, sometimes less well, but always focused on the current crisis. Then we get back to living—and quickly: soon after the Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans from 1918-1920 (with other diseases concurrently raging), the US hit the Roaring Twenties, enjoying financial bounty , the economy firing on all cylinders, material excess again the name of the day. Our reaction to 9/11 and the Great Recession was to try to restore society, as it had been, as soon as we could.

Rarely, if ever, have people stopped and said–in addition to all the more “natural” ways of facing troubles– this comes from Gd, for some reason, and we need to look into ourselves and turn to Gd for guidance as to what we have been doing wrong, so we can change and improve and hope for better in the future. Some religious people who do react that way, of course, then decide they know what Gd wants of them, often with distressingly simplistic answers. Confusing the issue, some idolaters, people who believe in a power other than Gd, also react “religiously” to times of trouble, giving answers that look religious while having nothing to do with service of the Creator of the Universe, Who took us out of Egypt.

I saw a clip of Benjamin Netanyahu assuring the Israeli public that, with Gd’s help, they would get through this. And another of him urging observant Jews to follow the physical distancing rules, as a matter of ve-ahavta le-re’aha kamokha and lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, love your fellow as yourself, and do not stand over your fellow’s blood.

Imagine if he also said, and we have to do a better job, as a nation, of serving Gd. Imagine if Donald Trump, Giuseppe Conte, Pedro Sanchez, and others, were to say, we recognize our salvation can only come from Gd, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and call for a day of prayer. In addition to all the other efforts they were making.

A pipe dream, I know, because we have assiduously removed the sacred from the public sphere, for fear of returning to an age of religious wars. A valid concern, unless of course Gd objects to being removed from life, objects to most of the world operating as if religion is for church, life is for living.

We are experiencing a plague, literally and figuratively. The Egyptians should have taught us the fearsome downsides of refusing to learn a plague’s lessons. As we head for our Seders this year, I hope we do not make their error; even more, I hope the “Egyptians” around us do not make their error. We point to the Egyptians’ drowning in the Sea as one reason we stop saying a full Hallel after the first day(s) of Pesah, because massive death and destruction isn’t good for anyone, is never the optimal outcome.

Rava tells us (Pesahim 116b) to include in our Seders the words of Devarim 6;23, ve-otanu hotzi misham, us He took from there, to be sure we experience the Exodus as personal. This year, it’s more personal than most, it’s a chance to see what a plague was like, to watch reactions to it, and to gauge how the Exodus story has or has not taught us the best way to respond: recognize Gd’s Hand; accept it is Gd’s Hand even if and when it looks like something we can attribute to a force we think we can better control. At the very least, we can turn to Gd with that—in our billions, I hope—and commit to keeping before us, forever, awareness of Gd’s role in the world, Gd’s commands, requests, and preferences for how we live our lives, as a relevant and continuing part of how we construct the world going forward.

We sometimes forget, I think, Hazal thought none of the Egyptians and only a fifth or fewer of the Jews got the message of the Exodus. How much better or more memorable would the event have been had Pharaoh conceded early? Or, if we read the Torah to say he did not have the possibility, how would it have looked if all the Jews had been ready to leave when Moshe called? If half or ten percent of Egyptians had protested Pharaoh’s choices?

It would have put history on a path unimaginably better, I maintain, because we are stuck in our history as it did happen. This time around, we can improve. The more of us who say, sincerely, we see this magefah comes from Gd, we recognize it is a call to significant framework change, and we intend to change, meaningfully, and say that over and over, in every conversation, the better off we all will be.

Then we will be able to say ve-otanu hotzi misham as a statement of history and a lived experience.

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