This week’s parashah, Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16), begins “Then God said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am God.’” (10:1-2). This is then followed by the onset of the eighth plague of locusts. The parashah continues with the continued hardening of Pharaoh’s heart after the eighth and ninth plagues and then the last plague, the death of the firstborn. The parashah concludes with the commandments to dedicate the first-born of the Israelites to God and to observe Pesakh/Passover.
At the end of last week’s parashah, Va’era, the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim was almost completely decimated by the plague of hail. Mitzrayim, which is connected with the Hebrew for “narrow, constricted,” has been laid waste. The place that was known for its glory and grandeur has been brought low. Yet, in spite of this, Pharaoh retains his hubris. Living in his palace, separated from his people, he is able to maintain his sense of superiority and his belief that nothing could ever destroy him or his power.
After the conclusion of the seventh plague, it must have seemed to the people that they and their land could suffer no more. Yet, with the coming of the locusts we are told that what little vegetation had been left after the previous plague was now totally consumed. If the people thought the land was bare after the hail, they now knew what barrenness really looked like. However, even that could not prepare them for what was to come. For we read that in the ninth plague, they experienced a darkness that they could actually feel. This darkness touched the core of their being. They were totally and utterly engulfed by it. This palpable darkness can represent not simply depression, uncertainty or fear, but the people’s realization that everything upon which they had built their hopes and dreams had ceased to exist. All that they believed to be real was an illusion. They could no longer experience anything but nothingness.
We get little sense of how the common Egyptians felt after each plague ended, but one can only imagine that they were relieved to see again when this plague ended. Yet, what were they able to see? If they had truly come to the realization that everything they knew before was an illusion then what did their eyes perceive in the light?
What they saw was a land that was totally barren. The palaces and cities of Pharaoh meant nothing to them, for they realized that they were simply empty monuments. They were able to see the reality that they had moments ago felt with their entire being. The only thing that did exist for them at that moment was the realization that nothing existed. One could imagine that they even doubted their own existence after all they had experienced. For how could anyone be certain of anything after experiencing the deepest darkness? As they tried to comprehend this while continuing their lives, darkness came again. However, this time it was the “normal” darkness accompanied by the light of the full moon. Perhaps they could trust this darkness. Perhaps they again began to feel more secure, like life was going to once again be what it was before. Then, the final plague struck and they felt as if they were plunged back into the deep darkness once again. For within hours, the entire first born of Egypt lay dead. The first born, the ones upon whom the hopes and dreams of the people’s future rested, were no more. If there was any doubt that nothing would ever be the same, it had now been eradicated. The rug had been pulled out from underneath the entire nation. The future no longer existed. Rather, the future seemed at that moment to be as uncertain as anything could be. That is how the parashah ends for the Egyptians.
Though we usually identify with the Israelites, I believe, just as when interpreting dreams, we can find ourselves in all of the characters in the Torah. Therefore, we are also the Egyptians … the Mitzrim … the constricted ones. We are the ones who have been oppressed by a power that we believed to be greater than us. We may not have been slaves to Pharaoh, but we were under his control nevertheless. We have worshipped him as a man/god who controlled our lives. We have looked at his grand edifices and identified with the power and glory that they represented. Surely, any person – any nation – that could create such splendor would last forever. Surely, anyone who was a subject of this person was also guaranteed the benefits that come along with the package. Yet, with each plague things became less and less certain. With each plague the ground beneath us began to shift and tremble. With each plague, our certainty began to diminish. Now, after the last two plagues we realize that it is all an illusion and that our future is gone. Though our eyes can see, it is as if we have been plunged back into that deepest darkness of the ninth plague yet again. However, this time we don’t know if we will ever emerge again into the light.
Then, we suddenly come to a realization that awakens us. It even makes us laugh a bit. This grand revelation is , simply put, ‘this is life.’ This is what it’s about. Existence is not about certainty, glory, or any of the things represented by palaces and the external trappings of Pharaoh and his court. Life is about not knowing what the next moment will bring. Life is about simply acknowledging and living in the present. Some of us come to this realization easily and early. However, for most of us it takes being plunged into darkness and ends with the death of the dreams and fantasies of the future upon which we have obsessed and built our lives. Only then do we come to the realization (if we do at all). Yet, once we realize this truth, we are actually relieved. Once we realize the truth, we can stop being Mitzrim – constricted ones – and instead become Israelites … B’nai Yisrael, those content to struggle with forces Divine and human.
And what are the Israelites doing while all of this is happening to the Egyptians? We are not certain from the text what they are doing during most of the plagues, but we can imagine that they might have just been sitting, waiting, and watching, while realizing that all of this was out of their control. However, we know that during the tenth plague they were sitting in their homes observing the first Pesakh seder. They were enacting a ritual commanded to them by Moses, on God’s behalf, by which their descendants would commemorate this night in perpetuity. They may have had their sandals on and their staffs at their side so that they could leave when the time came, but they also realized that the coming of that time was out of their control. Therefore, they sat, they ate, and they waited. Though we tend to emphasize the fact that the people left in haste, and so had no time to let the dough rise, the Torah tells us even before the meal takes place that they are to eat unleavened bread. The people were commanded to eat no leaven – which according to many represents “puffed up” human pride and hubris – even before they leave in haste.
One can imagine that Israelites simply sat where they were, ate what was before them and praised God from a place of humility. While all around them death and destruction engulfed the Egyptians. Then Pharaoh lets out a cry that the Torah tells us “reached all of Egypt” when his first-born dies. The future that he had built and planned for is no more. Even then, the Israelites remain seated in their homes celebrating the Passover. They remain where they are acknowledging and celebrating the present, knowing that the future is simply an unknown. All they have is the present. If there is to be a future, it is in God’s hands and they will know it only when it becomes the present.
When the final plague ends, the moment arrives when the future becomes the present. God makes them aware that it is time to move from their place. Yet, before that, God commands them that from now on their first-born will always be consecrated to the Divine. This is an instruction to them to remember that the future, represented by the first-born, is in God’s hands – however one chooses to understand that term.
We cannot control the future. We cannot control anything, any more than could the Egyptians. All we can do is experience the present. We can attend to and feel within our souls what is happening in the moment, no matter how painful or difficult it may be, just as the Egyptians did during the plagues of locust and darkness. We can sit wherever we are and recognize the chaos that is ensuing all around us, as well as the uncertainty within us, as the Israelites did during the final plague.
Our other choice is to take the path of Pharaoh, always believing that we are in control, that we know what the future brings and that our world is in our command. If we choose this path then, when everything comes crumbling down around us, as it inevitably will, we will be unable to feel the darkness of that moment or sit there in the midst of the chaos. Rather, we will only be able to do as Pharaoh did and let out a scream that could reach all the corners of Egypt, and all the corners within ourselves, as everything that we thought we had created and controlled dies around us, and we die along with it.
Still, once again, this provides us with an opportunity. At that moment when we feel all that we can do is scream and sink to our knees, we can also choose. We can either accept the impermanence and uncertainty of life or we can once again begin to build our illusions of permanence and control of the future. Each moment provides us with choice. Each moment provides us with an opportunity. Each moment is all we have. Now we simply need to decide.