Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Blogging Exodus; The Ten Plagues Revisted


Every year we Jews and our families gather around tables in countless homes to celebrate the mostly widely observed of all Jewish festivals, Passover. We retell again and again the path our people took from slavery to freedom. It is an invigorating experience in part because the themes of redemption have a universal appeal to them. Many peoples throughout the world who are fighting for freedom and justice gravitate towards the central narrative found within the book of Exodus and the Passover Haggadah.

And yet, many of us struggle with the more ‘supernatural’ elements of our Exodus narrative. In particular the Ten Plagues. They are: the water of the Nile turning to blood, frogs (a particular favorite), lice (not so much), wild animals, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the first born.

Some scientists as well as religious philosophers and theologians have bent over backwards to try to find natural explanations for many of these plagues. But the truth is they were never intended to be understood from a scientific perspective.

Instead we should be asking the question of why God, who could perform these miracles in the Exodus story, would not simply have transported the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. It should have been easy for God to do. Therefore there must be a reason why this action does not take place.

There are two answers to this question. The first is that God was working to convince the Egyptians of God’s might. But the second answer is a little more subtle. In a sense, for four hundred years prior, Pharaoh was god to the Israelites. He ruled their lives. He determined their fates. So in a very real way, many of the Israelites most likely worshipped Pharaoh more so than God.
In order to remove this notion from their theology, Pharaoh had to be diminished in the eyes of the Israelites. So in a very real way, the plagues created a situation whereby Pharaoh’s stature declines just as Moses, Aaron, and God are elevated in the minds and imaginations of the Israelites.

This narrative demonstrates an appreciation for the complexity of human interaction and psychology. The Israelites needed Pharaoh to be lowered in esteem, and they needed God to come in and fill the void. And in this sense the story moves well beyond the supernatural into the wants and needs we all feel as part of the human condition.

Yes the Passover narrative contains elements we could call supernatural. But more than that, it contains elements that appeals to every part of our Jewish and human experience. And it is because of this, I feel, that it has such universal appeal. This is in part why so many of us love to observe the Passover Seder. Well that, and the charoset.

Chag Sameach. May you all have a joyous Passover celebration in this Z’man Cheruteinu, the festival of our freedom and of our redemption.

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