Moses called upon Pharaoh to obey G-d's will and let the Hebrews go free from their forced labor, but Pharaoh refused. As Moses began to invoke G-d's pressure to make Pharaoh change his mind, the Torah says that Pharaoh--time after time--hardened his own heart against compassion for the Hebrews and against obedience to God's warnings. How do we understand this pressure from G-d, the ten smitings of the land of Egypt, Mitzrayyim, literally, the Tight and Narrow Space--what we conventionally call the Ten Plagues? Were the Plagues magic, "miracles" handed down by a Supernal King, a Super-Pharaoh in the sky? Or were they the emerging consequences of tyranny, the evidence that the Interbreathing of all life brings about torment and rebellion of the Earth when human beings are oppressed? In a generation that watches a profit-mad oil company ignore all warnings, safety standards, and precautions so as to maximize its profits from an oil well a mile deep undersea, and this attitude brings death upon its own workers, disaster to the ecosystem, and economic paralysis to the region--it is easier to see how YHWH, interconnecting all life, responds to unaccountable power with uncountable plagues. For arrogance is not only a moral and spiritual malady. It breeds stupidity. Those who are utterly convinced of their own absolute rightness cannot hear the warnings of others, cannot pay attention to the signals from the world around them, cannot learn from their own mistakes. How did this attitude work in the tale of ancient Egypt? First came the "plagues"--ecological disasters. The rivers became poisonous, undrinkable. Frogs swarmed everywhere and then died in stinking heaps. Vermin swarmed. Venomous bloodsucking flies followed. Mad cow disease descended. Airborne infections raised boils on everyone. Unprecedented hailstorms signaled radical climate change, shattering grass, green harvests, trees, animals. To the bafflement of Pharaoh and his advisers, Moses and Aaron had evidently become experts in ecological balance. Again and again, their warnings had been borne out. Now they warned that the ecosystem was so ruined that a monstrous plague of locusts was about to strike. And in this critical moment, Pharaoh's own advisers shrieked at him--"Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?" [this verse]. But Pharaoh hardened his heart once more, and the locusts came. And after that, so darkened were the eyes of all the people that the land itself was darkened as a thick dust swallowed up all vision. And then came an illness that left no house untouched by death. How were Moses and Aaron able to foretell disaster? Why did Pharaoh fail? What glimmer of reality spoke through the king's advisers? For Pharaoh, the "plagues" were a startling series of singular accidents. "Stuff happens." That was all. Each one was scary, but it did not portend another -- or a broken system. Moses and Aaron saw a deeper truth. They saw and felt the interconnections that weave the world together. They understood that "YHWH" was the Interbreathing of all life. They may not have understood the details of how smashing a butterfly far up the Nile could bring down hailstorms on the country's farmland--but they knew that it could happen. They understood that oppressing and enslaving workers, forcing them to work the land beyond its limits, would leave the land defenseless against a hoard of locusts. That was their advantage over Pharaoh and over his advisers, who could through sleight of hand make a serpent appear where a staff had been--but could not cure tormented cattle from mad cow disease. Finally, the advisers admitted incapabilities, spoke aloud Reality--and were ignored. The morning after they told Pharaoh he was destroying Egypt, his hardness-addicted heart drove him to march forward on the road to ruin. This kind of response has not been limited to one millennium, one country, or one form of government. The dangers of top-down, unaccountable, irresponsible power transcend the borders and centuries. In the epoch when the excesses of modernity are bringing danger to the planet, what are we to learn as a Jewish ethic? Hearken to the warnings of those who focus on the Breath of Life that intertwines us all. Can we learn from this old story to look beyond specific issues--this war or that highway, this tax cut or that coal plant--to the issue of unaccountable power? Of power as pyramidal in its top-down shape as ancient pyramids? How do we resolve the apparent conflict between two quite different biblical teachings: one, that the Flood and its global ecological disaster came about from the wide-spread hamas [destructive] behavior of the human species as a whole, and the other, that the Plagues came about as a result of a ruler's arrogance and stubbornness? On the one hand, all are responsible: on the other, the powerful are especially guilty. The metaphor of "addiction" may help us. In regard to mass public addiction, some point to the over burning of fossil fuels as the deep problem. Others point to the oppressive power of Big Oil, Big Coal, and their governmental allies as the source of danger. If we agree that large publics are indeed addicted, we can also say that some great power centers act like "drug lords" and "drug pushers," just as Big Tobacco engendered and facilitated the nicotine addiction of millions. The spiritual-ethical responsibility of Jews and other religious communities to free people from personal addiction--one kind of idolatry--can be complemented by their spiritual-ethical responsibility to free people from oppressive power centers--another kind of idol.
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