December 11, 2019

New Plagues

At last year’s seder, my friend, Jason, then 14, asked about the Ten Plagues: how could Egyptian deaths be justified even by those of us spilling 10 guilty drops of wine? It’s a fitting question by which to begin Passover 2002 in light of recent plagues: the World Trade Center attack, escalating Mideast violence and the variety of personal challenges that many of us face.

The haggadah urges us to place ourselves smack into the story of liberation. "Because of what God did for me…" Yet we’re stuck in the Sea of Reeds, still labeling all today’s bad guys as "Egyptians" and all our good guys as "Children of Israel." We can begin to answer Jason’s question only by opening the discussion of how we interpret suffering, starting with the metaphor of the plagues.

Are the Ten Plagues merely a just reward perpetrated against the "axis of evil" by a God who is "on our side"? Or are we called upon to move beyond "us" and "them" and make a larger ethical accounting in the face of human suffering? What can we learn by moving beyond the literal story that helps us resolve the critical dilemmas of our day?

Often this year, while struggling with a lung cancer diagnosis, I have confronted the politics and spirituality of suffering. Innocence and guilt today are linked through the mind-body connection. We talk about the "inner Pharoah," fighting the "inner slave," as if we know which part of us plays what role. Faced with a personal dilemma for which there is no understandable cause, our first recourse is to speak the language of the plague, as if perpetuating tragedy is God’s way to search for justice. Seeking "God’s will" is the current generation’s effort to rationalize pain. It is a step backward in the abuse of religious metaphor, like blaming the victim.

Our sages were far more sophisticated about cause and effect than we moderns might expect. The first lesson of the plagues is that no one is immune from them. Ten plagues were brought against the evil Egyptians, with ample Talmudic commentary offered to support each one. However, 50 plagues were brought against innocent Job, for no reason at all.

The sages do not flinch from blaming the sufferer for past acts. But they go beyond, interested in how we, the human family, react when suffering occurs. After the first plague, blood in the Nile, the Egyptians worked together to find a cure. But when the plague persisted, they gave up and never again attempted to turn their destiny around.

As I fight my own disease, the concerted support of doctors, nurses and my dear community makes the difference. I have never been left to feel that the search for a solution is futile. If I am facing the first plague, my community is with me.

A humorous midrash regarding the second plague has it that the croaking began with one frog alone, but eventually the frogs shrieked en masse. After Sept. 11, good people refused to croak, but acted en masse for the best interests of all.

Each plague presents a distinct opportunity, a moment of truth, in which individuals can make the difference for good or ill. The fourth plague, hail, is commonly read as hardship meted out against the recalcitrant Egyptians. This stops us from seeing the story as a metaphor, a story about the mystical cooperation of two alien forces, fire and ice, to serve a higher purpose. In that way, the hail plague offers hope, that two conflicting elements, Palestinian and Israeli forces, could work together for peace.

This year, let’s move the Passover story along, more than good and evil, Pharoah and slave, sick and well. Liberate the plagues.