Imagine Pharaoh relenting not after ten plagues, but seven. The devastation of locusts, deep darkness, tragic loss of every first-born, all averted.
What would it have taken? What actions of the people, and of the ruler’s allies and advisors, could have prevented God from devastating this storied land?
But first: What a last couple weeks it’s been for our nation – and, for the American Jewish community. Moved by histories of expulsions and pogroms and Holocaust, many took to the barricades (i.e. international arrivals terminals) to protest this week’s Muslim ban. Of course for millennia, we’ve been motivated by what we read in the Torah, and the mythic memories is contains.
Here’s the narrative spanning Genesis and Exodus, from the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time, to the one whom Moses confronted.
Or is it the tale of America, on either side of the recent inauguration? You decide:
The earlier ruler had taken the long view. Though not universally beloved, he accomplished much in his time. He heeded many thoughtful advisors, drawn not just from the prevailing demographic but from “outsider” groups; one notably wise immigrant ex-convict “dreamer” became his Number Two. Under their leadership the nation readied itself for whatever might lie ahead, which would include many good years followed by numerous challenging ones. Even amid famine, drought, and international instability, the people of this land knew no hunger, and enjoyed relative prosperity.
Next up in the annals of history, a less wise and less open ruler occupied the same throne. Known for narcissism and pettiness, he surrounded himself mostly with “yes” men – indeed, despite the diversity of the people, key decisions were made in rooms of only men, only with the skin color and recent ancestry of one dominant group. Minorities within his country felt oppressed. The ruling party acquiesced to the leader’s extremism. Things went from bad to worse; injustice and inequality ran rampant; pollution, disease, and natural imbalances threatened the nation. The opposition connected the dots. The rulers did not.
Even facts became points for debate. [The narrator wishes to remain non-partisan, but cannot admit that Administration’s “alternative facts”; the tale going forward reflects only the peer-reviewed canonical literature.]
When this ruler was first confronted with The Facts, his courtiers obfuscated. He asked them to manipulate the data, to exonerate themselves for the adverse changes around them. For a time it worked. But as the social injustices mounted, so did the frustration level of the ever-more-oppressed minorities – and so did the natural consequences. Soon the water became undrinkable. As the climate changed, new species ran amok, and parasites multiplied. Livestock fell to disease. People were sick, and suffering. Extreme weather events like hail (the seventh plague) made things worse.
Now, pause the narrative.
So far, of which land does it speak – ancient Egypt, or modern America?
Two weeks ago, when the Jewish lexionary included Genesis 50, Joseph was trusted advisor to a good Pharaoh, and the Israelite family was safely ensconced as an appreciated minority. Then – the same week as the inauguration, it happens – we started reading Exodus, when “a new Pharaoh arose, who knew not Joseph.” Civil disobedience was needed in the very first chapter, and it came through women: Shifra and Puah, midwives who marched to Hebrew homes and defied Pharaoh’s ban on Jewish babies; and Pharaoh’s own daughter who, in the best-ever act of teenage rebellion, brought a Hebrew baby boy into the royal palace to raise as her own.
Last Sabbath, that boy was the grown Moses, representing God [aka The Facts] before Pharaoh. The ruler’s insular stubbornness begat a series of plagues, delivered through natural ecological consequences, which devastated the people. That the plagues are karmic come-uppance for social sins, a matter of “environmental injustice,” is a point that I and many others (like Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Boston’s Bethel AME Church) have long made. But today’s political moment changes the telling of the story.
This week Jews read “Bo,” covering the last three plagues; number eight, locusts, has barely begun. Until this Saturday morning (2/4/17), we won’t have read of darkness, then the killing of the Egyptians’ first born. We are on the precipice. It’s as if, not knowing how the story will end, the outcome could be different this time.
Let’s play it out.
What of the people of this land? A slight but measurable majority were dissidents from the start of the new leader’s reign; many persevered, despite growing repression. Even some who had pinned high hopes on the new ruler became disillusioned as he grew ever more autocratic. Others slowly realized the dangers of disengagement, the complicity of silence. Some were influenced by a wise teacher, who said: “some are guilty; all are responsible.”
And what of the ruling party? The leader’s inner circle, more insular and extreme than that of any predecessor, arrogated “national security” to itself. Still, they were dependent on numerous individuals who commanded respect in various provinces (‘states’) within the land. The ‘senators’ or ‘representatives’ who mattered most were aligned with the ruler’s party, agreeing with many of his policies. But some proved more patriot than partisan.
In synagogue on Saturday we’ll pick up where the Torah left off last week, in Exodus 10, with seven plagues behind us.
I wish I could hear this Shabbat that the threatened locusts never came – the people managed to prevail over the sectarian interests; agriculture became sustainable, and the citizenry resilient.
I wish I could hear that the darkness creeping over the land – which some rooted for, and others simply cursed – was dispelled by many bravely lighting candles, and showing the way back into the light.
The dramatic story must include decisions on the table, or already underway, which would ultimately threaten every household, and decimate the country and all that it stood for. I wish to hear that enough leaders in the ruler’s party had brooked the leader’s wrath, and stood up – that they, backed by the people’s direct actions, preserved the republic, until a new leader could arise.
Alas: I know Exodus 11 through 13. Despite my wishes, locusts will indeed devastate the land. Darkness will cover it, creeping into each soul. And only after weeping and lamentation from everyone who didn’t explicitly and riskily identify themselves as rebels against Pharaoh, only after an awful body count, after Egypt is reduced to a shadow of its former self -- only then can the borders open, and the oppressed go free.
But what if the narrative is of America, today?
How many plagues have we brought upon ourselves already? Can we yet avert the worst?
Soon enough, we’ll open the pages of history, and find out what we ourselves will have written.
Stay woke. Stay holy. Stay tuned.