“It’s been a long time comin’
But I know a change is gonna come”
I constantly remind people of the power of the teaching of both the RaMBaM and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who said that we could look through the lens of the weekly Torah reading for a deeper understanding of the events of the world. As we approach the new year and finish off a secular year of so many challenges for so many people, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate Torah portion for this week.
The story is familiar to most of us. The Hebrews have become slaves, God has sent Moses to lead them out of bondage, and this week’s reading includes the first seven plagues that are visited upon Egypt. Immediately prior to Moses first confronting Pharaoh, God lets Moses know that He “will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and that Pharaoh will refuse until God multiplies His miracles and the people will be set free (Ex. 7:3). It happens as God says, and the remainder of the portion details Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh and those first seven plagues.
We recite parts of this story every Passover, but rarely do we take a deeper look at the experience of the average Hebrew in Egypt: their thoughts and feelings. But none of us are Moses or Aaron, and it would benefit us all to take a few moments and look at their experience, and use it to deepen our own experience of life as we leave the challenges of 2021 behind us and enter this new year.
For the regular Hebrew living in Egypt, the time covered in this week’s reading was terrifying and chaotic. For over two centuries they had been in Egypt. At first, under the leadership of Joseph, the Hebrews were welcomed and treated well. But after a new king arose in Egypt (Ex. 1:8), they became slaves. Persecuted and assimilated, the average ancient Hebrew had gotten used to their suffering. Times were hard, they prayed for freedom, and they knew the challenges and risks that would affect them each day. But then came Moses and Aaron.
Suddenly, each Hebrew had his life turned upside down. In the midst of a life that was already challenging, the Hebrew was placed in a world’s reality that he had no personal understanding of, and dictates and actions by leaders with whom he had no personal relationship. The simple Hebrew family suddenly was confronted with mixed stories about staffs turning to snakes and the Nile changing to blood. And you can be assured that the stories being told by Pharaoh’s ministers and communications staff were radically different than the stories being related by the friends and family of Moses. What was the average Hebrew who just wanted to get through his difficult day and go home with his family supposed to believe? “A Hebrew charlatan made his staff turn into a snake, but Pharaoh’s great ministers made many snakes”, said Pharaoh’s public relations team. Moses’ allies proudly called out, “God will redeem us! Don’t trust Pharaoh! God made Moses’ staff turn into a snake, and it devoured the snakes of Pharaoh’s ministers!” Think for a moment about how the simple Hebrew felt when confronted with these diametrically opposite stories? Which was true, and which was fake news?
And the confusion continued. Plagues started happening as we read about in this portion. Pharaoh’s side continued with their explanations of the state of the world and what should be done. “It’s because of Moses and Aaron that Egypt is being overrun with frogs, lice, boils, and more! We all need to reject Moses so that Egypt can once again return to normal. Commit to Pharaoh, trust in the holy wisdom of Pharaoh and his ministers, and reject this crazy man who wants to lead you into the dangers of even worse things! Let us return to Pharaoh’s ways and the world will be better.” At the same time, this simple Hebrew heard shouting from a few other Hebrews in the street. “God is about to redeem us! He has sent Moses and the plagues to reduce Pharaoh so that we can be free and return to the land of our ancestor Abraham. Reject Pharaoh, the establishment we have known which was always corrupt and enslaved us, and embrace God so that we can all be free again!” How would a simple Hebrew family react to being pounded every day with these conflicting interpretations of the world’s events?
Is their psycho-emotional experience over 3000 years ago that different than what so many people are feeling today?
Conflicting interpretations of 2021’s events surround us on all sides and on every issue. Is the economy booming or are we in the midst of a spiraling inflation that is leading to economic ruin unless a change is quickly made? Will the BBB legislation save or destroy the country? And most prevalent in everyone’s consciousness are the conflicting stories about the different variants of covid. Should we believe that masks are necessary even outdoors and vaccinations must be mandatory, or else many people will die? Or should we follow those who say that masks are useless, vaccines don’t work right and haven’t been fully tested, and herd immunity is already occurring and is the best answer to truly reduce the effects of this virus? Like our ancient ancestors, we are confronted with conflicting interpretations of what is happening and what should be done. We are bombarded with opposite understandings and recommendations by “leaders” on both sides whom we do not personally know, for how many of us actually have personal relationships with Biden, Fauci, et al on the one side or Bobby Kennedy, Rand Paul et al on the other? Whom do we trust?
We all know what side in ancient Egypt was ultimately right, but think of the challenges our ancestors faced in those turbulent and confusing times.
But as always, we can find a practical answer in how to proceed within the Torah’s reading.
There is a teaching that there was a deep reason for the plagues beyond demonstrating God’s might to just Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We are taught that many of the Hebrews had assimilated and turned away from the practices of Judaism. In their daily struggles, they had stepped away from faith in God as a primary worldview and were focused on the day to day needs and pleasures they had. This understanding includes that the plagues were not given only for Pharaoh and Egypt, but for the assimilated Hebrews as well who had left behind their spiritual practices. And that is the teaching that we all need to remember in these challenging times as one year ends and another begins. Like our ancestors, we all need to make God, Judaism, ethical behavior, and Jewish values our priority...especially in times like these that, like in ancient Egypt, are so challenging, confusing, and in which he hear so many conflicting stories.
It would have been much easier for the ancient Hebrews if they had known the end of the story (freedom) that they were participating in. It would be much easier for us if we had the foreknowledge to see a few years into the future and know which of the many conflicting stories we hear are actually true and accurate. We don’t have that ability to predict the future with certainty, but as we enter this new year, we do have the ability to be certain of one thing.
“Everything is in the Hands of Heaven, except the awe of Heaven” (Bavli, Berakhot 33b) While our understanding of any experience is temporal, God is eternal. It is more important than ever in these challenging times that we renew, re-establish, and commit ourselves to faith and trust in God. This is a great teaching to glean from the Torah reading that is applicable today.
Take some time as you enter the new year and think back upon the last, and see God’s Holy Presence. Contemplate the many blessings you received this year even in the midst of challenges. As hard as it may have been, you are here and able to read this commentary. You can think. You can feel. You are alive. Pause, reflect, and be grateful for the experiences of the past year, realizing that these experiences are only part of the story of life you are experiencing, and the end of that story has yet to come. And that end will involve change, which with God’s help will be as powerful and positive as the change from slavery to freedom that our ancestors experienced.
As this new year begins, I enjoin each of us to renew our relationship with God and strengthen our ties to Jewish communities. Commit to having a daily dialogue with God; to attending services or classes; to studying on your own or online; and to tying yourself to a Jewish community and being supported psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually by others who also are choosing to experience life through the filter of being in awe of God. I guarantee that if you do these things, the changes that we all experience with this new year and beyond will ultimately be beneficial.
To paraphrase Etta James, the change is going to do us good. May we all enter this new secular year by embracing those changes through deepening our awareness of our own relationship with God, with Judaism, with each other, and with our own souls.
And may we all be blessed with a new year filled with good health, prosperity, joy, wisdom, fun, peace, and love.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
December 31, 2021
27th of Tevet, 5782