I know we live in an era where so many are fed up with politics. The cable news cycle and the drama we watch daily, and nightly in our homes and it all shows variations on a theme about the dynamic of power. Politics has become an evil word today because power is often the golden fleece rather than policy. All of this political toxicity in our world and in our nation’s political discourse has eroded the faith of the people in our democratic institutions. Is religion the place to escape that kind of politics?
The answer is yes and no. What I am going to show us tonight is that the negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses look a lot like what we see in today’s world whether we are referring to politics or any form of an adversarial negotiation. Our stories in the Torah are political and we simply have to embrace them and the lessons they teach about human character. Politics are very much connected to this week’s Torah portion Vaeira and the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh who demands of his brother “Let my people go!” This Torah portion goes down in our memory as the Torah portion of plagues. These are the same plagues we commemorate which Moses invoked during the Passover Seder meal. We pour one drop of wine for each plague concluding with the plague of the death of the first born in Egypt.
Don’t be fooled for a moment by thinking this story in Exodus isn’t a political power play between the two leaders.
Pharaoh tried to show his magicians were just as powerful as Moses by producing plagues, but, in the end Moses’ power, bestowed upon him by God, was too great for Pharaoh who finally acknowledged the power of Adonai. The plagues are meant to show that the power of faith and God’s intervention were superior to anything that Pharaoh could muster up. This episode, the speaking of truth to power, and Moses invoking the Divine Presence to bring on the plagues is part of a greater narrative in the Torah about a religious and political movement of liberation. The Exodus is all about politics. How could it not be?
I just love the negotiation between Pharaoh and Moses. As each plague wreaks havoc on Egypt, the text tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Each time Pharaoh’s seems to relent from his stubbornness and appears ready to let the Israelites go, he then changes his mind. Is Pharaoh playing to his base for fear that if he gives in he risks appearing weak and, therefore, loosing the bases of his support?
Yet, the Torah tells us how each plague created its own cycle of Pharaoh changing his mind to get rid of the Israelites only to change his mind again in the aftermath of the plague. The failed negotiations proved that Pharaoh was a man you just couldn’t do business with because no matter what he says he always changed his mind. Finally the plague of hail illicit a different reaction from Pharaoh when he remarked, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right for I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord that there may be an end to this thunder and hail. I will let you go and you need not stay here any longer” (9:28-29).
The sad and tragic aspect of this political stand off is that even after Pharaoh said these things in acknowledging that Adonai is just and that he was wrong and that the Israelites could go free, it all meant nothing because Pharaoh said again shortly afterwards, “ But Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he refused to let the children of Israel go” (9:35).
The sages have their own viewpoints about this power dynamic. Some espoused the belief that the purpose of the plagues was to educate Pharaoh about the power of God and others said it was to remember compassion in anger.
When we get to the Passover Haggadah itself, the Reform movement focused on the plagues as a metaphor on how humanity brings on the plagues upon themselves when we are disrespectful of each other and our environment. Elie Wiesel wrote that the purpose of dropping the wine for each plague was to teach us to remember the compassion for the Egyptians who were also victims, albeit of their own arrogance. Again, another rule of politics the people always end up suffering at the hands of the arrogance from their own leaders. Eventually that is what happened to the Egyptians when the final blow from the death of the first born of Egypt.
The plagues, whether we are referring to the plagues used by Moses or those brought on my Pharaoh’s magicians, are as much political weapons as they were literal weapons used by each side to prove their power. Moses knew that Pharaoh’s word was meaningless. He saw through the lies of Pharaoh, when he said , “But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God” (9:30). In politics you can negotiate and achieve solutions even when both sides are completely opposed to each other. The problem is when there is not enough respect or trust for each side to achieve a mutual agreement. That is the core of the problem, in my estimation, between Moses and Pharaoh. This is why, in next week’s parashah Bo, the plague of the death of the first born in Egypt qualifies as the only factor that broke the political will of Pharaoh. Cable news cynics would say that mass deaths of Egypt gave Pharaoh the political cover to let them go and not loose power with his base.
In a way Moses was playing to his constituent base too. Was the base God or the people? That is the question we ask throughout the rest of the Torah. It drives the entire story of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai as well as the stories of Moses loosing his temper and saving his people too. I cannot help but believe that negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh resemble in many ways the kind of negotiations between political leaders today.
Alas, politics are part of life and their repercussions have an impact on the people. In the realm of religion too, our national narrative as a free people is very much connected to politics and negotiations. Many of us would like to think that that Judaism should be free of political discussions. We come to study Torah to be enriched spiritually. At the same time this our destiny and our history, how do we deny what is our past? How do we learn those lessons and apply them for how we conduct ourselves in the present for the benefit of the Jewish people, Israel and for America?