The Plagues Within Us
Mystical, philosophical, and literal; the Ten Plagues are more than a fantastical scare tactic.
Although Passover is done for this year, its grand story is eternal and always worth reflective analysis. Within the Haggadah, the compiled seder guide and commentary on the book of Exodus, the Jewish people focus on a central cast of characters — Moshe, Aharon, Miryam, and Pharaoh. Think though about the characters we don’t know existing in the background: The Egyptians, beneficiaries of slavery; recipients of punishment.
Imagine what it was like to be an Egyptian experiencing the sudden, colossal upheaval of the Hebrew liberation movement Moshe led. Think how shocking and life altering, if not destroying, it was to their lives and all that they knew. Their concepts of reality would have been torn asunder. How do we, Jewish and non-Jewish people, thousands of years later, reflect on this retribution?
Each Passover I spend the days celebrating liberty with family and friends who grew up in and subsequently left Apartheid South Africa. American Jewish people live (quite comfortably) in a racist, unjust country, where the echoes of slavery and Segregation are still deafeningly loud. My surroundings implore me to think of the Egyptians who may not have struck Hebrew slaves, like the taskmaster Moshe slew. Instead I dwell on the bystanders - ‘the people’.
While not directly enforcing the injustice of Hebrew enslavement, the Egyptian public was still complicit, unknowingly reaping the benefits of a moral injustice or deliberately turning a blind eye. Their inaction against an inhumane system is a definite example of failure in compassion and humanity, but were they just as deserving of makat bechorot, the slaying of the first born, as were Pharaoh and those who actually helmed the institution of slavery and led oppression by physical example?
It is easy to consider G-D as cruel in Exodus, and want to disassociate from religion, spirituality, or the mystical altogether, but consider instead that the Ten Plagues are not actually about retribution from one side to another.
Reach deep within yourself. Judaism teaches us that G-D is much grander than simply a deity. When we say “The Lord is One” in the proclamatitve blessing, the Sh’ma, we are reiterating the principle that G-D is all encompassing: creating, destroying, places, plants, animals — every occurrence and everything!
That everything includes us.
While, yes, scripture reads often as “G-D did this” and “G-D did that,” the Torah’s prose is symbolic language at its most mighty. Too often we separate ourselves from G-D, when in fact we are One. The Egyptians suffered because of their decision to allow slavery, a gross practice derived from greed and ignorance to the collective nature of the universe. G-D’s Ten Plagues can therefore be interpreted as a self inflicted wound, a warning against a hardened heart that allows injustice and imbalance with cosmic harmony.
The plagues represent ten stages of painful realization of fault. In slaughtering and dehumanizing their fellow person, Egypt fell* out of sync with cosmic harmony. The Egyptians and their leader had to go through a painful transformation in order to (re)gain a sense of humanity and become One with the universe again. The Egyptian public’s role as accomplices through inaction, covering their eyes to human suffering next door, is even symbolized by hoshech, darkness, and their last stubborn sacrifice in the quest to preserve their comforts was their most dear — their children. The Ten Plagues teach us that when one refuses justice, whether by outright power-hunger like Pharaoh or through resignation and passivity like the average Egyptian citizen, one will bring about their own decay. We can avoid that by simply refusing to ignore when suffering exists. In recognizing the interconnected world around us and the pain within it, we can always fight injustice in ways both large and small.
*I specifically use the word ‘fell’ here as 1. a tribute to mythologist Joseph Campbell and 2. In line with Campbell’s work, to highlight the recurring trope of the disconnection with G-D i.e. nature i.e. the cosmos i.e everything, I claim. In Christianity the most famous instance of this is known as The Fall (from Grace) when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. This Fall represents a separation of G-D from Man, Humanity from nature — a disharmonious existence and the victory of ego — and it reappears as a trope constantly and in other religions and myths all over the world.