In Va-era most of the “magic” of the story is revealed. God creates the plagues and Egypt is terrified. Many contemporary historians, theologians, and archaeologists have tried to historicize the plagues. In spite of their efforts, it seems unlikely that all of a sudden the water turned to blood (but people claim a reddening of water through soil absorption is possible). Frogs falling from the sky have been explained through bizarre meteorological phenomena, and so on. While I can understand the desire to prove that the story is “true,” it is the magic of the story that I find compelling. The book of Exodus has such incredible narrative power. The Exodus story leaves no historical/archaeological evidence. What it leaves is an extremely important story that serves as the cornerstone of Jewish culture. And the way this story has lasted is through its exceptional plot devices – such as the plagues. What we have here is terrific creative writing – not terrific/terrifying natural/supernatural phenomena. There is a difference between “fact” and “truth” in narrative. We can learn a lot about history, for example, through reading historical fiction. Not every word must be “true” in order to capture the mood or experience of a particular historical event. While the Exodus story is not fact, it does speak a certain truth about Jewish identity.
We have experienced exile and disenfranchisement, and we have also found hope and new lands that accommodate us. We have survived as individuals and as a community. The Exodus is our fundamental story – even if it is not fact, it is true to us in real ways. One of the things the narrative can tell us about history is what stories our ancestors thought would be important for the creation/sustenance of a community. This story has indeed been part of Jewish survival – the Passover seder is something that Jews around the world have practiced for millenia. This is something historical that binds us that is rooted in fact.
In this parshah the God-character refers to himself as “El Shaddai” – a name he used in Genesis when forming the covenant. Jewish scholars wanting to believe in the truth of the bible have suggested that this naming is important because here in the Exodus story we see God keeping his earlier promise to guard and proliferate the people. Again, this is not “true,” but is great literary criticism. We now have many scholars who have shown that the different names for God are part of strands of different writers of the bible that were redacted into a (mostly) coherent narrative. Again, throughout our early ancestry this story was looked at, added to, revised, and passed down. This history of narrative is a very important historical event for us as Jews, even if the story itself is not.
A friend of mine who is not Jewish once told me that her father used to read her the bible as a literary text and what bothered her most was that God hardened Pharoah’s heart to prevent him from letting the people go. Why would the God, wanting his people to be free, do this? Why not let Pharoah follow his initial impulse to free the Israelites? There are many possible answers for this part of the story and I’ll offer a couple that I find compelling. Maimonides suggested that Pharoah’s sins were so great that God took away his ability to repent as harsh punishment. God “hardening” the Pharoah’s heart was thus not specifically to block the Israelite departure but rather to show that our humanity is a reward we get from God. What I like about this is the focus on humanity as something to treasure. The Pharoah shows us how much one can suffer through one’s own indifference to others. Others scholars have suggested that the Israelites would not have appreciated freedom unless its cost was high. If they had been allowed to leave easily they may not have valued the deliverance to the promised land nor the land itself. Some even suggest that the people needed to see the danger of a dictator so they would create a more open political society themselves. These all have value in terms of human lessons we can learn from the story.
The plagues all have their terrible effects on the Egyptians – and many Humanistic Jews find that we cannot celebrate the suffering of the Egyptians. There are some lovely humanistically-oriented interpretations of how the plagues would have badly affected the Israelites as well as the Egyptians – thus blurring the boundary between “us and them” in the story, and reminding us that the suffering of some should prevent the joy of all.
I wrote this commentary in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. The week of this parshah, I was standing with the women of the wall – a group of feminists who have been transgressing gender codes and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem since 1988. They read from the Torah (for this they move – it is still illegal for women to do this at the wall), and push the boundaries of both feminism and orthodoxy. Standing at that incredibly meaningful historical and cultural site, a woman gave a lovely Dvar Torah (commentary) about how the plague of Darkness reminds us to find the light wherever we are. The oppression of women, she was saying, continues to be a plague amongst and affecting contemporary Jews. This unreasonable blindness to the necessity for equality illustrates the darkness of our own day. We must work to find freedom, and with it to find the light of reason, understanding and compassion.
Each time Moses asks Pharoah to “let my people go,” Pharoah’s heart is hardened and he says no. The repetition of “Let my people go” serves as an important refrain in this story and others. Michael Walzer’s book Exodus and Revolution elucidates how oppressed peoples besides the Jews, such as Southern Black slaves, have found solace and hope in the biblical Exodus story. The song “Let my people go” is an example of how the Jewish Exodus story became part of the American struggle for freedom on the part of subjugated people of colour. Walzer sums up by saying there are three lessons we learn from Exodus. 1) Wherever you are it is probably Egypt. 2) There is hope for redemption/a Promised Land. 3) The only way to get there is by holding hands and marching (I once heard this last point explained instead as “The only way to get there is through the Wilderness”). Although we are not at the point of the biblical story yet where the Jews are allowed their freedom, Walzer’s claims resonate with the Plague of darkness. There are times that seem overwhelmingly bleak, but we do our best to make positive change in the world; we can find hope and find community. This is how we turn darkness into light.