At our Friday Night service on January 27th, following a painful week of mass shootings, Rabbi Deena delivered a drash on this week’s parsha from Exodus comparing its plagues of death to our own. You can listen to this sermon on the latest episode of Contact Chai podcast or watch it on our YouTube channel.
Last weekend, a friend and I were talking about the ritual of benching gomel, in which someone who survives a scary experience is called to the Torah to acknowledge their survival in front of the community. Gomel cannot be done alone. It is not just about the blessing, but requires the community to reply in affirmation of the survival, allowing survivors to feel seen in community.
Ordinarily, a person might only say gomel a few times in their life — after a surgery or childbirth, a life threatening accident, or even a particularly momentous trip.
But last weekend, my friend said something I cannot stop thinking about: Every day, when her son comes home from elementary school, she wants to bench gomel for his safe return. Not because the journey is so perilous, but because the mundane task of sending a kid to second grade no longer comes with a reasonable sense of security that they will return home alive and unharmed.
I don’t have children, but the feeling is familiar to me. I want to bench gomel every time we finish a Shabbat service without incident; or every time I get home from the grocery store, or take public transit, or go to a crowded concert, or any of the other myriad activities of daily living where people get shot and killed in America. Even today, we were reminded that nowhere is immune, as we read of emerging reports from Israel where at least 7 people were shot and killed at a Kabbalat Shabbat service.
In reading about yet another series of mass shootings last weekend in California, I was crushed to see another community devastated on what should have been a celebratory weekend. And, I was afraid to start writing this drash early in the week, lest something else happen later in the week and I need to go back and revise it. This is our reality: we live our normal lives punctuated by devastation, unable to stop living but terrified that we will be stopped in our tracks.
As I read the news, several articles referred to “the plague of gun violence in America”, and I could not help notice the Jewish resonance of this description. This week, we read the story of the final three plagues, which escalate from locusts to darkness to the death of every firstborn Egyptian in all the land. We might see an association between the modern reference to gun deaths as a plague and the Biblical 10th plague, the plague of indiscriminate death. We know that it is that final plague that will move Pharaoh to release the Egyptians.
Our attention is naturally drawn to the final plague, the plague of death, both because it seems so much more severe than the others, and because we know it is the climax, the 10th out of 10 acts of God affecting the natural world. But reading the parsha this week, I felt my heart catch in my throat long before this final plague. At the very beginning of this parsha, Moshe and Aaron once again come to Pharaoh to ask for the Israelites’ freedom, and Pharaoh once again refuses him. But before the plague of locusts is announced, Pharaoh’s advisors, who have previously participated with him in rebutting Moshe and Aaron, ask, “Don’t you know Egypt is lost? When are you going to let up?” But, as we know, Pharaoh doesn’t until his own son dies, and his entire country is filled with wails of grief.
It is SO frustrating to watch the cycle of Pharaoh relenting at each plague, or at least considering compromise, then hardening back up once things have smoothed over. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah teaches us that: “This is the way of the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their ways”. Part of what makes this section of the Torah so hard to read is that it feels too true to our own lives. We see in the parsha is a lesson we implicitly know to be true: We too live in a world where we are plagued by the immovability of our leaders, watching their attention drift past crises within a few news cycles.
This year, I found myself identifying with the Egyptians who lived through these plagues. Pharaoh knew what was coming and decided to let it happen… but Pharaoh wasn’t the only one affected by the plagues. All the Egyptians were: their water turned to blood and their houses filled with frogs and they contracted lice and boils and watched their cattle die and hid from the fiery hail. Perhaps some of them were complicit in the oppression of the Israelites, but surely many of them lived far from any Israelites. Yet their land and bodies suffer as much, if not more than Pharaoh.
The modern Biblical scholar, Aviva Gottlieb Zorenberg quotes the Italian commentator Seforno, who notes that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to give the Egyptians a chance to recognize God’s greatness, “The humanitarian point that Seforno makes,” Gottlieb Zorenberg writes, “is that the Egyptians, too, are being addressed…. They remain subjects, capable of change”. Even if our leaders cannot or will not change, we ourselves can and should remain open to being changed by the unbearable circumstances we encounter. Though Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, first by his own obstinacy and then by God, Seforno seems to be exhorting us to remain openhearted. But at some point, our repeated experience of communal fear and suffering becomes too much to reasonably bear.
When do you think it was too much for the Egyptians? At the stage of discomfort and inconvenience, when there were frogs everywhere and they itched from lice? When their livelihoods and food sources were affected by cattle disease and hail and locusts? The Midrash explains that Pharaoh’s magicians were broken by the plague of boils, which afflicted them so severely that their bodies were never the same, prompting them to push back on Pharaoh before the plague of locusts. Their own intimate encounter with this suffering changed their point of view. But, as Gottlieb Zorenberg writes, Pharaoh is so motivated by his own power, his own narrative of being outside the realm of human suffering, that he suffers from a kind of spiritual rigor mortis, and is unable to be moved by the suffering of his people.
I see this kind of spiritual rigor mortis setting in among our leaders and it infuriates me, but I also see it setting in among our communities, and it terrifies me. I read the parsha with a sense of dread, the impending doom and tragedy of the death of the firstborn. But as Pharaoh’s advisors called out, getting to that point is already having gone too far. And they’re right: the doom arrives one plague before the 10th. It comes with the darkness.
The plague of Darkness is described as a complete, tangible darkness. It was not just an unending night, it was a total moratorium on daily life for every single Egyptian. According to the Midrash, when the darkness fell, not only could people not see, but no one could move. Whatever people were doing when the darkness fell, that’s how they were stuck: if they were standing, they couldn’t sit. If they were sitting, they couldn’t stand. No one could call out to each other, or adjust their life to ride out the darkness more comfortably. The rigidity of Pharaoh’s heart became literal in their lives. As his heart hardened against mercy, the air hardened around his subjects, who remained frozen in place by his obstinacy.
I think of the people murdered at a Lunar New Year celebration, or at a community dancehall, who didn’t know that the trajectory of their lives would be frozen at this celebration, cut off in tragedy, and my heart just breaks.
The plague of darkness is not just about the physical world, it is a preview of the spiritual state brought on by the final plague. Being unable to see each other or move towards each other is the penultimate plague before death touches each and every household.
We. cannot. let. this. happen. to. us.
You have heard your Mishkan rabbis exhort and encourage you to take political action many times, and while that remains good advice, that is not what I want to ask of you right now. Instead, I want to ask something far more difficult: I want to urge you to take spiritual action against the coming darkness that would separate us from each other. As difficult as it is to remain connected to a painful, scary world, don’t turn away. Do your best to continue to see and move towards the people around you. If everything were to freeze at any given moment, who would you want to be with? What would you want to be doing?
Continue to show up in community to bless your own survival, and to answer to the miracle of survival of those around you. Share your fears with each other, but also share your hopes and dreams for change, for a world where we don’t need to feel relief that our children come home alive, and we can sit here without worry.
In a moment, I will invite you to stand if you’re able, to ask your neighbor if you can put an arm around them, and to sing the words of Psalm 23 with me, words that have been a light through tough times for millennia:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil… Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.”
May it be so.