Locusts. Darkness. Slaying of the first born.
Though Passover is still a few months away, we are in the thick of the Exodus narrative in our weekly Torah reading cycle. This week, we read about the last three plagues that God visits upon Pharaoh as punishment for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt. The plagues cripple Egyptian society as locusts “cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen” and the darkness pervades so that “no one could see anyone else or move about for three days.” Yet while Pharaoh momentarily considers releasing the Hebrews from bondage after each plague, he ultimately refuses to back down.
As I reflect on this famous story from a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. during the third week of a government shut-down, I cannot help but see its relevance. While there are no locusts and the sun is shining, the public museums are closed, garbage lines the streets, and the roads are empty. The glimmer of the city has darkened. Unseen are the families whose lives are being held hostage.
We don’t yet know how this government shut-down will end, but we do know the tragic ending of Pharaoh’s story. Pharaoh’s obstinance causes God to send the ultimate punishment: the slaying of all Egyptian first-born. The Torah tells us: “At midnight the Eternal struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was a loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” Only after this plague does Pharaoh finally relent and say to Moses: “Up! Leave…and go!”
This plague finally changes Pharaoh’s mind because he was so deeply and personally affected by it. No punishment could be more painful than the death of his own child. Only after this experience is he willing to blink, and Moses seizes the opportunity to lead his people out of bondage, not even allowing them a few minutes for their bread to rise lest Pharaoh change his mind yet again.
In these verses, it is easy to see Pharaoh as the villain who lacks empathy. But just like in our own lives, nothing in the Torah is ever that simple. After each plague, Pharaoh has a moment of clarity where he wants to free the Israelites. But immediately after Pharaoh relents, God “hardens his heart,” and forces him to change his mind and hold the Israelites back. Why does God prevent Pharaoh from freeing the Israelites? Perhaps God is trying to demonstrate the universal human tendency to get stuck in a position or in a mindset. Most people have had the experience of taking a stand or making a claim and then feeling that they can’t back down, even if they might want to. Saving face can often feel as important as doing the right thing. It takes a tragedy for Pharaoh to humble himself and to let go of his desire to look consistent.
In our current moment, political leaders on each side of this government shut-down battle appear stuck in their respective positions. One side seems inured to the hardship of furloughed government workers, while the other refuses to take the time to understand why this particular issue is so important to some Americans. The result is an ugly stalemate where both sides are entrenched in their positions, unwilling to back down, leaving innocents in the cross hairs.
A moment of vulnerability ended the stalemate between Pharaoh and the Israelites. It will take a similarly humane moment to end our current government stalemate. But I am optimistic. If Pharaoh and Moses — arguably the two most stubborn figures in the Hebrew Bible — can do it, so can our leaders.