This year leading up the Passover, my daughter asked me “why was Moses so mean to Pharaoh and the Egyptian people?”
She had been learning the story of Passover, and came up with this question on her own. We asked her teachers, and they said that the plagues were barely discussed in class – mostly just the frogs. This was her own revelation.
I can only speak for myself, but after having been a very active participant in my family Seder for the last 15+ years, I must admit that I almost always took the plagues for granted. Not that if I stopped to think about it I wouldn’t be troubled by the suffering of an entire population, but most of the time I simply didn’t think about it. It took the fresh un-jaded perspective of an innocent four-year-old to call out the suffering that goes unrecognized.
So how to answer her question? Of course not all of the Egyptians were evil. In fact, I have to believe that there were Egyptians who were good and righteous people. Pharaoh’s daughter knew that she was saving a Jewish baby’s life as she lifted Moses out of the water, and she defied her father’s decree to do the right thing. It can’t be that all Egyptians personally deserved this punishment.
This question has been percolating in my head over the last couple of weeks, and there’s only one explanation I can really get behind. The status quo of the Jewish people being enslaved by Egypt at that time was so bad and twisted and cemented in place like the mortar of the bricks we commemorate with charoset, that the only way to break through was with a catastrophic jolt of unprecedented proportions. God decided that only such an extreme, violent, and vicious series of plagues could change the course of history.
AJWS published a supplementary reading for the recounting plagues during the Seder that parallels them with modern day suffering that can be found throughout the world. Looking at this list you begin to appreciate that the system remains broken. The seismic shifts that freed the Israelites were not strong enough to prevent the suffering of hundreds of millions throughout the millennia until today. In each and every generation major reforms and collaborative efforts are required to combat the global problems of the day such as violence against women and girls, hunger and poverty, the spread of preventable disease, and the suffering of children caught up in wars of attrition.
Just like it took my innocent daughter’s question to get me to think differently about the 10 plagues, so too do we all need a fresh perspective on the world. We have to stop skimming past the shocking news stories of human rights abuses that come to us from Syria, Central Africa, South America, and other parts of the world. The first step is to make sure we recognize that these problems even exist.
Can we do anything about them? Can one person make a difference? I have to believe so, and the story of Passover drives that message home. My daughter didn’t ask why God was mean to the Egyptians; she asked why Moses was mean to the Egyptian people. When God determined that 10 rounds of suffering would be required to change everything, one man was tasked with putting that plan into action – a single person sent to change the world.
With Passover in the rearview mirror, I set my sights forward to changes that I can affect in this world. Right now that means preparing for day of lobbying in Washington, DC to help get the International Violence Against Women Act passed in the 2015 congressional session.
How are you going to look at the world differently after this Passover? What change are you going to assume responsibility for bringing about in this world?