What Plagues Us

Parashat Va’eira 2015 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

What Plagues Us 

Blood - dam, frogs – tzefardea, lice - kinim, wild animals - arov, pestilence - dever , boils - shichin, hail – barad. Those are the plagues of parashat Va’eira, seven in total, with three more – arbeh (locusts), chosech (darknesss), makkat bechorot (death of the firstborn) in the next parashah, parashat Bo. 

We are so used to encountering the plagues in a very specific context: the Pesach seder. Did anyone else feel like dipping their finger in their wine and dabbing it on their napkin as I read them out? The plagues remind us of schmutzy haggadot accruing wine stains and matzah crumbs. These Pesach associations can hold a lot of fondness but they do manage to detract us from the core message of Va’eira. No plague finger puppets today (as cute as they may be). Now is the time to leave the gimmicks behind. 

To be fair, the Torah itself gets a little gimmicky about these plagues. So Moses’ staff turns into a snake, and the Nile is turned to blood: the Egyptian magicians easily copy these ‘party tricks’. So if the plagues are actually not that impressive, what do we do with them? We have the stage directions for a cheap production. We have the sets. We have the actors. And we even have special effects of debatable quality. (I’m not referring to that film, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’). Pharaoh, as a bronze age man, wasn’t impressed. By that token, should we as so-called 21st century sophisticates be impressed? 

No. 

Rather, let’s look behind the scenes and examine the meaning and significance behind the plagues. Maybe we can see the plagues as a form of propaganda, an ideological face-off between the powers of slavery and totalitarianism and the forces of freedom and liberation. Perhaps we can re-imagine the plagues as what plagues us all. The beasts, disease, destructive weather, the darkness within – including the existential fear of losing what is most precious to us, our children and loved ones. What if we recast the plagues as what plagues us externally as a society? What are the forces that debilitate and unhinge us? Are they an ‘act of God’? Are they inevitable forces of nature? Or are they human, finite, political, cynical even? And lastly, we could see the plagues as the drivers of a dynamic between Pharaoh and Moses: not as people but as archetypes. How the ordinary citizens of Egypt were ground between these monumental political forces, suffering the consequences of social developments they had neither say in nor control over. It can be a scary world and the plagues look quite different then, don’t they? 

We have been plagued as of late. I am sure that many of us are still reeling from recent events in Paris. Shocked at the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, the brave (Muslim) policemen and women who responded and of course, four of our Jewish brothers who were slaughtered in cold blood in the kosher supermarket. And we may have a complex range of feelings at the fall-out. 
World leaders marching side by side, millions turning into the streets of Paris and elsewhere to defend free speech. Further from home: the underreported massacre of 2000 Nigerians at the hands of terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Or perhaps closer to home: mixed reports of Jewish concerns about British anti-semitism. Is it true that, according to the Campaign against Antisemitism, 58% of UK Jews ‘are concerned they have no long-term future in the UK’? Is it true that one in four non-Jewish Brits believe Jews chase money more than others, according to a YouGov poll? Well, some of the media seems to think so and they are quite adept at illustrating and reporting plagues, sometimes for dramatic effect. The Jewish Chronicle, however, reports that 9 out of 10 of us is determined to stay put. 

Things are tender and complicated right now. Are we scared? Should we be? What’s being done to keep us safe? Are we afraid to be Jewish? Or do we feel all the prouder for standing our ground and living the best Jewish lives we can? Do we fear terrorism? Or do we fear polarisation between different faith communities? Do we worry about rising islamophobia as well as rising anti-Semitism? Do we feel anger at the ideological claims of the terrorists and does this impact how we view other people and global politics? Or do we scratch our heads and wonder why some things get underreported and others overreported in the media? All these things might go through our heads at any given moment. 

Yet, it’s important to remember that we are not alone and we are not powerless. We are equipped with the support of each other, our communities and other communities who stand in solidarity with us. Within half a day, interfaith leaders met at the London Regents Park Mosque to condemn the violence and stand for the British values we share: solidarity, openness, the ability to disagree civilly, peace, freedom of speech and plain human decency. As Dr Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain said: 

“We come together today in difficult times and difficult circumstances. Last week we all watched in horror as people were killed mercilessly. We come together in solidarity. There has been a lot of heat generated in the last week about freedom of speech, about security and about the place of British Muslims in society. We’re at risk of doing the very thing the terrorists want us to do – divide our society." 

Our own Movement Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner who met with these senior faith leaders, added: 

“Today was to send a message about Britain – a united Britain of religions. We will not have division here, we will continue to work together and any attempt to divide us will not work.” 

 And in a letter to the Editor in the Times, she reiterated: 

“We need to put brakes on the idea that Britain is not safe for Jews. We are living in a wonderful time for British Jewry, and any suggestion to the contrary simply isn’t true. Yes, people are worried… but… Britain is not an anti-Semitic country… In Britain today, we have a government working with the community to combat antisemitism. Twenty-first century Britain is a great place to be a Jew." 

The truth behind the plagues is that the actions of a few were allowed to define the fate of many – that’s what evildoers want. Pharaoh hardened his heart. The deeper truth is that we can stand up and defy all those things. It’s OK to be afraid and only normal to be grief-stricken. It can be human nature to be prejudiced in the face of social upheaval. But that we are equally equipped with a tradition that can both comfort us and challenge us to come to terms with those feelings. A tradition that teaches us not to harden our hearts but to circumcise them, to chip away at that hardness through the values of kindness, justice and mercy we hold dear. It is the only response that makes sense and that is right. 

God willing, we will be able to rid the world forever from the plagues of violence, racism, discrimination, poverty, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, ignorance. 

Our redemption awaits. 

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