From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V
From where I sit any number of inconsistencies jump out at me with regard to the ineffable God. This feeling was reinforced last night as I listened carefully to Rabbi Mendel discuss the ten plagues that God delivered upon Egypt as Moses asked Pharaoh to. “Let my people go.” The argument went as follows. The plagues are divided into three distinct segments. The first three plagues announce that, “I am God.” The second three announce that, “I am God and I am right here.” And finally the last four announce that, “Not only am I God and that I am here but I am both the only God there is and I am all powerful.” Interesting, but the argument proceeds a bit further by making the claim that these plagues that were brought down upon Egypt were not for the benefit of the Egyptians as a means to demonstrate the power of God but were, in fact, for the benefit of the Israelites as they required signs and wonders in order to be able to serve God upon their release from Egypt and their time in the desert..
Two important questions arise. First, if God is really God why does God have to create signs and wonders in order to prove God’s own existence? Secondly, why does the all powerful God require plagues, symbols of punishment and displeasure, rather than acts of loving kindness to prove God’s existence? Rabbi Mendel’s response to these two questions, the first posed by me and the second actually from another participant, although I was also thinking along those lines as well, is that God created the physical world as the lowest place on the ladder of eternity so that God could have a world in which the inhabitants could discover the spiritual nature of eternity and God. This answer did not seem satisfactory to me. He also argued that it is not for us human beings to question the mind of God because we can never know what God might be thinking. Also unsatisfactory.
I would like to take a metaphorical stab at the problem of the ten plagues, one that doesn’t require God to prove it is God, rather, one that strongly suggests that there are fundamental ethical obligations that are learned from the very interesting grouping of the plagues and their intended audience. Let me first look at the problem of the plagues and the Egyptians. On the surface, the plagues are intended to soften the Pharaoh’s spirit, to weaken him much like a prize fighter seeks to weaken his opponent in preparation for the knockout punch. If you compare each plague to a round in a boxing match this interpretation makes sense. Each plague brings on greater and greater devastation on Egypt, thereby weakening Pharaoh’s resolve. In the early rounds, Pharaoh’s priests and magicians are able to fight back, to do the same things that were being brought on by God but as the fight progressed, the priests and magicians were rendered moot because they could no longer respond to the devastating blows of each plague. The Egyptian resolve is finally broken by the knockout blow of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn in the tenth and final round.
From the perspective of the Israelites, they are not yet Jews, the intended audience, there is an entirely different picture. At first, the Israelites are able to witness the Egyptian priests and magicians do the very same thing as Moses is doing through the intercession of God. The announcement that, “I am God,” appears to be no different than the Egyptian claims to eternity. Blow for blow the Egyptians are able to counter the magic tricks of God and thereby tend to weaken the spirit of the Israelites. By the time the next three plagues are over, the announcement that, “I am God and I am here,” carries a bit more weight because the Egyptians are weakening and are unable to match the plagues. The Israelites can now cheer for their God without having to think about the Egyptian gods having power over their God; at this stage, the Israelites were unable to appreciate the singularity of deity, the idea of a single God, the monism of eternity. At the conclusion of the next three plagues, when God announces, “Not only am I God and not only am I here, but there is no God other than me and I am all powerful,” that the Israelites begin to recognize the power of God. It took the final plague, the slaying of the first born to release them to the desert, to wander for 40 years.
One of the major themes running through the Torah is the fundamental obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The story of the ten plagues emphasizes the fact that the plagues were brought on the Egyptian population and not on the Israelites. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land, the Israelites were singled out as being different from the Egyptians; their uniqueness (as well as the uniqueness of the Egyptians) was, in fact, the question at hand. It is a perfect metaphor for the very idea of uniqueness, only in this case the uniqueness leads to a lack of communication, to a total lack of understanding between Pharaoh and Moses. It is as if they were talking past each other rather than seeking a platform of understanding. Moses approached Pharaoh with an agenda that was not to be shaken, “Let my people go,” he shouted. Pharaoh responded by making the lives of the Israelites even harsher even while the Israelites were free of the devastation rendered upon the Egyptians.
From where I sit, the later commandment to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, when seen in the light of the notion that Israel was the audience for the plagues, to soften them up to accept the burden that Hillary Putnam, writing on Levinas, calls the fundamental ethical obligation to make oneself available to the other, to care for the other without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation; to reach out to the Infinite, the Absolute Other, through the relationship the self has with the other (human being). The plagues offer the metaphor for being the stranger in the strange land, in the land of Egypt; that because you know what it is to be a stranger, to be an other, the fundamental ethical obligation is easier to grasp, to understand, than if you were never a stranger yourself. On this view, God has no need to prove its existence, in fact, there really is no need for there to be a God at all. Rather, the mere repetition of the metaphorical story returns Jews to Egypt each and every year, at the Passover Seder, a ritual tradition where the story of the exodus is repeated and we are told that we (not they) were slaves in the land of Egypt and we (not they) were freed to wander the desert for 40 years, and we (not they) have the sacred obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Even if there is no God, we have an obligation to act as if there is, for only then will we accept the burden of the fundamental ethical obligation and embrace the uniqueness of the stranger in our midst.
The burden of learning to think in Jewish is, it seems, exciting and frustrating. I am grateful for my teacher, a man who really makes me think differently that I have ever thought before; another thing to add to my gratitude list.