Now that we have returned to the Story of the Exodus, and are just this week reading about the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, I feel it is time to share something I’ve been working on for a while. The fact that the timing has coincided fortuitously with the upcoming inauguration is actually somewhat astonishing. But it has made me feel all the more certain - especially after last week’s attempted insurrection - that I need to share these thoughts here on the blog:
For several months now, I have been forming an uncomfortable picture in my head of what’s going on in the world, and in our country, as we dive into the year 2021. We are living in Ancient Egypt. But we’re not our Israelite ancestors in this scenario. Nope. In this iteration, we play a VERY different role. We are the poor, unfortunate Egyptian citizens who are being decimated by plagues because of an injustice that we’re allowing to persist. In part, it’s being done TO us, but our complacency is exacerbating our predicament. We were born into a system of inequality and luxury that wasn’t of our own making, but we benefit from it daily. Our slaves are not called Israelites, but rather immigrants - documented or undocumented - as well as various minority groups and People of Color who are at the lower ends (and sometimes the very bottom...) of our modern-day caste system. People who feel that, to the Egyptians, their lives do not Matter.
Living is America today is what it feels like to be led by Pharaoh. We may squabble over whether he’s hardening his own heart, or whether God is doing it, but the result is the same. He has a heart of stone for the less-fortunate and anyone not allied with him. And in the face of plague after plague, he continues to rail against the defenseless. He has insisted on forcing upon us policies that harm the climate, punish the disenfranchised, ruin heathcare, denounce mask use, and pretend the pandemic is a hoax. And who suffers? The Egyptians. We pled and pled with him to listen, but in the end, it always fell on deaf ears. Greed, self-worship, thirst for power, foolish pride, and narcissism made it very hard to hear, or feel, anyone else’s perspective.
Throughout his reign, he was surrounded by his own royal court, who supported him and his policies. Like the magicians and courtiers of Pharaoh, these modern-day illusionists performed incredible tricks that eroded the very fabric of our democracy (ignoring emoluments and blatant conflicts of interest; installing biased and unqualified justices, thwarting impeachment(s?), turning a blind eye to corruption, bullying, and intimidation, allowing collusion with foreign governments, fanning the anger of the “stolen” election, and so much else). They condoned and enabled, endlessly, until like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court, they too eventually saw the horror of what they had done, and begged him to stop. The Egyptian courtiers were confronted with the inevitable, disastrous, and lethal outcome of their complicity. But it was too late.
The similarities between America in 2021 and Egypt in 4,000 BCE are brutally and eerily stark. What recourse did the Egyptian people have to stop the onslaught of Divine plagues? Punishments that were all-too-similar to our modern-day heat waves, forest fires, murder hornets/locusts/lantern flies, hurricanes, food waste, and a global pandemic? None. No recourse to mitigate the disaster. But the text does hint at another option. The Erev Rav. When the Israelites finally left, an “Erev Rav,” a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38) of non-Israelites left as well. Who were they? Is it possible, perhaps, that some Egyptians saw the evil of their vicious ruler for what it was? They knew it was fundamentally wrong, that their cities were built on the backs of their slaves, and that there was a rotten core at the center of their social systems. They couldn’t remain silent or neutral, so instead they threw their lot in with the Israelites. They painted their houses with lamb’s blood when they saw the slaves doing it. And they marched out the next day, out of a corrupt society, and into an unknown wilderness, trusting in their new God...
That is a choice we still can make. There are many ways to be “Egyptian” in our story, in 2021. We could be like Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who refused to kill Israelite newborn babies. Like a Wall of Moms, they formed a barrier against government brutality, even (maybe especially) when they themselves were not the target of the violence. Or we could be like the daughter of Pharaoh, putting two and two together, and realizing a baby floating in the reeds was an Israelite child. Refusing to look the other way when injustice is committed. Refusing to go on bathing and assuming NO responsibility for the life of another. Does she take on risk? Of course! Is it a burden, an expense, and a commitment of emotion, caring, and compassion? Absolutely. And it must be all those things.
But our story has already differed from that of the Ancient Egyptians in one crucial way; Pharaoh is about to lose his golden throne. We cannot, however, assume that will be the end of the struggle. Every ruler in Egypt, across centuries - whether dealing with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or David - was called “Pharaoh,” so just because one gets shown the door doesn’t mean the next one won’t provide more of the same. WE have to challenge ALL the members of our leadership - local and national - to see the perils and plagues that will be the ONLY possible result of continuing down this path. Perhaps we do not have the luxury of being led by a new “Moses” (though it IS worth noting that Moses was 80 years old, according to the Torah, when he confronted Pharaoh, so maybe we’re two years AHEAD of schedule??). These stories are not identical, and that shouldn’t be the lesson anyway. But there is still a lot we CAN learn from these cautionary tales! We should imagine ourselves as Egyptians, in the midst of (or, please God, SOON on the other end of...) the plagues. This stage is awful. It simply is. But the plagues WILL end, and when they do, we will have to decide how to rebuild our society; hopefully with at least a CERTAIN “Pharaoh” in the rear-view mirror...