Pharaoh’s plea to Moses in this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Bo) could well be ours today. Battered by the first eight of 10 otherworldly plagues, destabilized and even disempowered by them, Pharaoh begs Moses to stop the onslaught: “Just remove this death from me!” (Exodus 10:17).
Pharaoh’s suffering was real, yet ultimately blind to how Pharaoh himself and his people shared responsibility for their collective fate. Even if Pharaoh might have held the key to his best future by doing the right thing, that fleeting awareness faded as fast as each plague relented. Two more tragic plagues – darkness and death – would come before our enslaved spiritual ancestors went free.
Sometimes Torah is subtle. Other times, Torah booms. In this COVID-19 pandemic era of political darkness and tragic death, today’s headlines roar from yester-millennium’s scroll.
Perhaps that’s because Torah is endlessly incomplete. As 18th-century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim wrote in his “Degel Machane Efraim,” each generation must read its own soul story, its own Oral Torah, into the Written Torah – and thereby help complete the Torah. Biblicists call it “eisegesis,” reading ourselves into sacred text, alongside the “exegesis” of our search for objective meaning. By reading ourselves into Torah, we help complete Torah for our time.
So we read ourselves into Pharaoh’s plea – and it’s not hard. How many of us have looked up and cried “Enough!” as our resilience wanes? How many are weary from this pandemic, the plague of disease and death, the cyclical classroom shutdowns and hospital overloads, the exhaustion of healthcare workers and first responders, the viral twindemic of physical pathogen and digital toxicity, the insidious sense that yet another shoe will fall, the galling fury that some corruptly self-serving “they” is responsible for preventable suffering?
If we’re honest, probably most of us resonate with Pharaoh – and feel weird admitting it. It can seem heretical to imagine that we – the Children of Israel, spiritual descendants of slaves and prophets – might read ourselves into the desperate words of the Bible’s most iconic slavemaster: “Just remove this death from me!”
Even more challenging is Torah’s repeated reminder that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” If so, then was the God of Torah at least partly responsible for Egypt’s suffering and Israel’s prolonged bondage? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, did Pharaoh really have free choice?
This notion of choice is a key spiritual lesson of the dramatic bondage and liberation of Exodus, and also today’s pandemic moment. A slave is one who lacks the capacity of choice rooted in awareness of one’s own agency. In that sense, bondage gripped both the Israelite slaves and also, provocatively, Pharaoh and Egypt’s slavers. As Rabbi Menachem Twersky (the Chernobyler Rebbe) wrote in his “Meor Eynayim” (“Light of the Eyes”), the essence of Mitzrayim (“narrowness,” the name of Egypt in Torah) is the dearth of da’at (knowing right from wrong). In that “narrow” place, by definition there can be no true agency, no choice and no release from suffering. Thus, he wrote, “God did not remove choice from Pharaoh: rather, choice did not yet exist.”
Liberation from Egyptian bondage was meant not only to forge a national identity of liberation by right living. Liberation from Egyptian bondage was meant to create agency – the awesome human power to choose right from wrong and live accordingly. If choice and agency didn’t exist “then,” they do now.
Liberation from Egyptian bondage was meant to create agency – the awesome human power to choose right from wrong.
When societal forces threaten to swamp our ability to act on our sense of right and wrong, our capacity to choose and act still distinguishes us from our spiritual ancestors in Egyptian bondage. When we surrender that da’at, then spiritually speaking we might as well be back in chains making bricks under the taskmaster’s lash.
When we cede da’at to the latest charismatic purveyor of pseudoscience conspiracy or feelgood political tribalism, we might as well be back in Egypt.
When we let da’at falter, crushing our hope and hobbling value-driven action however small, we might as well be back in Egypt.
We didn’t come all this way just to go back to Egypt. Let Pharaoh inspire us to press forward from here.
Rabbi David Evan Markus is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in City Island, New York. He is board chair of Bayit: Building Jewish; and seminary faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York.
Friday, Jan. 7, 2022
Shevat 5, 5782
Light Shabbat candles at 4:27 p.m. (NYC)
Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022
Shevat 6, 5782
Torah Reading: Bo: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Shabbat ends 5:30 p.m. (NYC)