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THE SLOW PATH TO JUSTICE

by Rabbi Dr. Michael S. Berger    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Justice is rarely achieved smoothly or painlessly. At the end of last week's Torah portion, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh for the first time, perhaps with dreams that all they would need to do is invoke Hashem's name, transmit His instructions to let the Jewish people celebrate a three-day festival in the wilderness, and the king of Egypt would acquiesce immediately.

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Justice is rarely achieved smoothly or painlessly. At the end of last week's Torah portion, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh for the first time, perhaps with dreams that all they would need to do is invoke Hashem's name, transmit His instructions to let the Jewish people celebrate a three-day festival in the wilderness, and the king of Egypt would acquiesce immediately. Instead, not only did Pharaoh impudently challenge the One who sent them - "Who is G-d that I should heed Him?. . . I do not know G-d" (Exodus 5:2) - but he made the lives of the slaves even worse, demanding that they fetch the straw for the bricks without relaxing the daily production quota. Moses' discouraged reaction is reasonable: "Hashem. . .why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he did evil to this people" (ibid. 5:22-23).

This week's Torah portion narrates the drama of what is nothing less than the battle of kings - Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and Hashem, the King of kings. In sharp contrast to his initial brazenness, by the end of this week's Torah portion a humbled Pharaoh not only admits G-d's existence, but even declares "Hashem is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong" (ibid. 9:27). What precipitates this rather remarkable turnaround is the main drama of Parshat Vaera: Hashem smiting Egypt with an unrelenting series of plagues.

Ostensibly, the aim of this battle is to get Pharaoh to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt: "Let My people go, so that they may worship Me." But were this the sole aim, a single, devastating blow could have forced the Egyptian monarch to let them go, instead of a long, drawn out process of plague after plague. Indeed, since Hashem knew that Pharaoh would not submit until the plague of the firstborn, this display of might seems, at first glance, excessive and superfluous.

The simplest explanation is that it was not the death of the firstborn alone which compelled Pharaoh to capitulate, but precisely its arrival at the end of an exhausting list of other plagues. In a word, Pharaoh was not so much overwhelmed by the tenth plague as worn down by it. His courtiers had told him more than once that keeping the slaves in Egypt was not worth the suffering Egypt was enduring (e.g. Exodus 10:7). The plague of the firstborn was the straw that broke the camel's back, but only because there had been nine straws there already.

The ten plagues certainly follow a pattern of increasing effect. Blood, the first plague, struck the water, while frogs moved from the water to the land. Lice emerged from the dust of the earth, and the fourth plague, arov, is understood by some classic commentators as swarms of insects. The fifth plague attacks the cattle and livestock of the Egyptians, and boils begin to attack the people's own bodies. The next three plagues - hail, locusts, and darkness - come from or affect the heavens. After nine plagues, all the domains of nature had been shown to be controlled by the G-d of the Hebrews. When all the firstborn throughout Egypt are smitten on one night, then it is clear that Hashem is the master of life itself. There was nowhere else to turn; no part of creation could be regarded beyond the power of Hashem. Pharaoh's somewhat bizarre request on that fateful night of liberation - "and may you bring a blessing upon me also" (ibid. 12:32) - reveals that Pharaoh had acknowledged Hashem's mastery over the entire natural order (see also 7:17, 9:14-17).

This all-encompassing array of plagues as the steady closure of all other options and excuses, mirrors Pharaoh's arrival at the just conclusion that he must release the slaves. As in any instance of genuine teshuvah (repentance), whether individually or communally, it takes a long time to acknowledge that we are wrong. Our results-driven society can make it seem that as long as we achieve the desired outcome, how we got there is of little consequence. This is not the Torah's view. The slow and frequently painful process of discovering the truth, whether about a situation, another person, or ourselves, often entails as well the rejection or dismissal of other explanations or justifications which could readily allow the status quo to continue. We tenaciously hold on to theories of cause or blame which hamper, if not halt, serious change. A Pharaoh clubbed instantly into submission might release the Jewish people, but would shortly thereafter resume his old ways of injustice. The ten plagues were the process of transforming a mighty king into one who acknowledged that there was indeed a power greater than he in the world. And in the Torah's view, it was worth keeping the Jews enslaved several months longer in order to achieve that goal.

Our sages suggested, according to one view, that after the parting of the Red Sea, Pharaoh was too embarrassed to return to Egypt and fled instead to Ninveh, where hundreds of years later, Jonah, with a mere five words, was able to inspire the entire city to repentance. If that was the legacy which Pharaoh left, then the ten plagues had a lasting impact indeed.

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Rabbi Dr. Michael S. Berger is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the Emory University Department of Religion in Atlanta.

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