Rabbi Micah Citrin   
January 23, 2015

             I have a vivid memory from childhood of the first time I saw the epic film, The Ten Commandments.  As the Israelites huddled in their homes with blood smeared across lintel and doorpost, the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn begins.  Green finger-like wisps of smoke slowly branch out across the screen.  Silently and subtly this representation of the angel of death creeps through the city of Pharaoh as the suffering cries of Egyptian parents pierce the night.

            The image of this scene remains with me, and looking back, DeMille’s creative genius becomes apparent.  In contrast to many of the other grand, earth shaking plagues like blood, locusts, or hail, DeMille harnesses the quiet power of the most terrible plague.  It makes the viewer wonder how long the plague of death had been lingering beneath the surface.  It had probably been there since the inception of Egyptian slavery.

             In our Torah portion this Shabbat, Parashat Bo, we encounter the final plagues God brings upon Pharaoh.  Each successive plague becomes more severe and debilitating.  And as the plagues become worse, Pharaoh becomes more stubborn.  With blood, frogs, lice, insects, and slaying of the beasts, the text says that Pharaoh’s heart stiffens; his stubborn arrogance entrenches his position.  But something begins to change with the final five plagues.  Now, God begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart.  Commentators ponder this shift.  It is one thing for Pharaoh to willfully and with insolence refuse to acquiesce in the face of the plagues, but as God becomes the source of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, how can we hold Pharaoh responsible for his actions? 

           One commentary suggests that just as it is difficult to write on a hard rock, once that rock has become engraved, what is written upon it does not go away.  Pharaoh had many opportunities to respond to the plagues and to change his ways.  As he hardened his own heart, Pharaoh set into motion a process that became a part of God’s world.  His inability to release the Israelites, and for that matter the Egyptians, from the scourge of slavery illustrated to the depth of his addiction.  At some point, the sum total of our choices, especially those that can be destructive, become self perpetuating, written in stone, and that much more difficult to reverse.

             A hardened heart is callous, insensitive, and unresponsive.  The plagues came as warnings, as a wake up call for Pharaoh to understand the corrosive nature of slavery.  Rather than understand the plagues as literal, supernatural wonders brought by God, our Torah offers subtle metaphors; images of the consequences of an unjust society.  Pharaoh’s complacency, inertia, and arrogance prevented him from looking broadly and deeply at what was going on around him.  We come to understand that the plagues served as mirrors, reflecting what Egyptian society had become.  But Pharaoh missed the lesson.  The plagues were not caused by God, but by an oppressive society.

            If we understand the plagues as mirrors into Egyptian society, look what the final three plagues in our Torah portion reflect.  Locusts came and devoured everything.  Such is the nature of slavery.  It dehumanizes both slave and slaveholder.  Then God brought on darkness in the all the land, except in Goshen where the Israelites dwelled there was light.  A Chasidic teaching sheds light on this darkness.  The darkness was so overwhelming and complete that people could not see one another.  In other words, slavery had caused the Egyptians not to see their neighbors in distress, nor reach out to help them.  So when a person does not see another or does not want to see others, the teaching concludes that there is darkness.   

           Of course God lifts the darkness to bring on a more terrible night, the slaying of the firstborn.  The Torah relates that each and every firstborn Egyptian suffered this plague from Pharaoh’s first born to the son of the lowly handmaiden.  While Egypt’s ruling class benefited most from Hebrew labor, all of Egyptian society took advantage of it, and ultimately suffered its consequences.  When we look into the mirror of the 10th plague we find the stark reality that our world is interconnected.  The suffering of Hebrew slaves and the decree to throw the first born into the Nile could not be isolated amongst the oppressed.  The perpetrators and even bystanders of slavery were not exempt from its consequences.

             Our interpretation of Torah this evening suggests that the plagues were mirrors for the Egyptian society; a wake up call that was never fully heeded until it was too late.  Yet, we leave the lessons of Torah incomplete if we do not apply them to our own day.  We too have plagues in our society that reflect back to us both the consequences of our action and inaction.  I want take a few moment to touch upon three modern day plagues; not to look away, but to pay attention.

             This past August our country peered into the darkness of the unequal treatment of citizens and communities of color.  The symptom was excess use of force in the death of Eric Garner, arrested for selling loose cigarettes, and killed by a chokehold of a Staten Island police officer.  The symptom was Michael Brown being shot to death in an altercation with police in St. Louis.  But these two stories belong to a larger plague in which African American men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white men.  It is a plague of segregation that persists, not the legal form that we overcame during the Civil Rights era, but one that quietly simmers along socio-economic lines that overwhelmingly affect minorities.  It is a plague that perpetuates two Americas in which government responds to some citizens responsibly while casting a doubtful eye on others, as if they are guilty until proven innocent.

             Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis takes an active role in trying to peel away the darkness of Ferguson and Staten Island.  She has called on the Jewish community to see our neighbors and to respond.  Reflecting on the marches in which she participated, Rabbi Talve challenged the status quo of the “two Americas.”  In speaking to our Jewish community, one that has been both the target of discrimination, and for the most part, the beneficiary of white privilege, she calls the divisions of race, class, and gender, an illusion.  She challenges us to see the crime of “driving while black” or “shopping while black” one that oppresses us all; an issue that is not just a black issue, but one that will take every American to change.  She drives home her point with this story:

            “I marched with a tall black 16-year-old who lives in Ferguson and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation at our synagogue, Central Reform Congregation.  As we were marching together, I heard a shout-out from the side of the road.  It was a white ex-marine St. Louis City police officer who had come to help keep the peace.  For a moment I thought, what had I done?  ‘Rabbi Talve! Don’t you remember me? You did my Bar Mitzvah!’  So there I was marching between two young men who shared common ground in Torah, one a kid of color from Ferguson who just wants to get back to school and the other a police officer whose job it is to keep him safe.  These relationships are what blurs the lines of separation and will eventually help us to change the culture of profiling and militarized policing.”[1]  If we can continue to keep light focused on our neighbors in African American communities and on others treated as second-class citizens we can drive out this plague of discrimination, of being blind to our neighbors in need.

            This week something amazing happened in the U.S. Senate.  In a show of rare bipartisanship, an amendment passed 98-1.  And what did this amendment declare?  That climate change is real and not a hoax.  The debate about whether or not human factors contribute to climate change is still a source of disagreement in the U.S. Senate as evidenced by a 59-40 rejection of an amendment acknowledging the human influence on climate change.  The second plague on which we ought to fix our gaze is deteriorating health of our planet.  Unlike the U.S. Senate, the world’s scientists have declared with a high degree of confidence that human activities exacerbate climate change.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading scientific body charged by the U.N. for monitoring climate change recently issued its 2014 report.  The scientific conclusion of this report finds it extremely likely that human activity has contributed to the highest concentration of heat trapping gases in 800,000 years on planet earth.[2]     

             The plague of climate change persists and we cannot afford to harden our hearts to its consequences.  Whether you are a human being living in Bejing and literally cannot go outside because carbon emissions are so bad you cannot breathe, a person living in drought conditions in the western United States, even western Oklahoma, a child in Montana watching Glacier National park all but vanish, or a resident of New York or New Orleans who experienced the first hand devastation of Sandy and Katrina, our world cries out for a restoration of balance.  If we do not get our human emissions under control or slow the mass deforestation in our world’s rainforests we will become like the locusts God sent upon Egypt, devouring ourselves.  

            Third, and finally, we must gaze at the growing wealth disparity in our country as a plague that threatens our society’s ability to prosper as a whole.  According to a 2012 Forbes Magazine article, the Congressional Budget Office reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1% of households doubled their share of pretax income while the share of the bottom 80% fell.   We all know what then happened in 2008 with the financial meltdown and great recession.  At that point, the top 1% of income earners in the United States, owned 25% of the country’s wealth, the same ratios in the 1920’s pre-Depression era.[3]  What affect does this gap have on middle and lower income families to gain access to quality education, hope for a better life, access to the American dream?  How will this gap prevent more Americans from offering their children greater opportunity or a way out of poverty? 

            Such disparity perpetuates an America in which the few who have so much gain unequal influence in politics, far superior education in private institutions over resource starved public institutions, and access to debt free college for their children.  Yet, as our Torah portion reminds us, the slaying of the firstborn affected all Egyptians, rich and poor alike.  Our inability to deal with wild economic imbalance will leave all members of our society at risk.  Our Jewish ethic reminds us that we are all tied to one another.  The biblical prophets judged the quality of ancient Israel by how it cared for the most vulnerable. 

             I hold the image of unfolding green fingers of plague filling the movie screen.  How slowly and nefariously it spreads.  Why do don’t we notice sooner? The plagues that fell upon Egypt were opportunities to gaze into a mirror and change.  Our Torah endures because its teachings are powerfully relevant in our own day.  We have to have the inner strength to look into the ails that affect our world, and like a mirror, see the truth that is reflected back, the quality and character of our world. 

           It is hard to face up to our plagues.  It is hard to look in the mirror and say, “I am responsible.”  It can be easy to let our hearts harden with despair or apathy or meanness of spirit.  But if we allow this to happen unchecked, then we become like Pharaoh.  Our tradition offers an encouraging teaching; that even as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not all needed to be lost.  In every circumstance we can assert our free will, overcome, and choose good.  Give us the strength, Adonai to open our eyes and our hearts to see, to feel, and to respond.

[1] Rabbi Susan Talve – A Blog on the Shalom Center Website

[2] 2014 IPCC 2014 Synthesis Report

[3] “How Income Inequality is Damaging the U.S.” by Fredrick E. Allen.  Forbes Magazine online Oct. 2, 2012.