Imagine how scary it must have been for our ancestors in Egypt that night. Imagine what they must have been thinking as they watched one plague after another strike the land – from blood flowing in the rivers to frogs and lice overrunning the countryside, to animals dying all around them, from a sudden outbreak of boils to out-of-season thunder and hail in the midst of spring to a plague of locusts swarming in, and over, and under everything.
And if that wasn’t scary enough, this week’s portion begins with the terrifying plague of darkness that covered the land. There is a reason that nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives is afraid of the dark. After all, the very creation of the universe itself begins in our sacred Torah texts as the emergence of light out of the darkness, order out of the chaos of the infinite cosmos.
And so when darkness suddenly fell like a giant curtain over all of Egypt except the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived, it must have been terrifying indeed. “What power is this?” they must have wondered. “Who could possibly control such a power? What if it suddenly turns on us as well? Where will be hide? Who will protect us? Where can we go to be safe?”
These were people who had lived as slaves for hundreds of years. They were deprived of the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, deprived of the ability to keep their families together, to be responsible for themselves and their lives – emasculated, abused, oppressed and heavily crushed under the physical and psychological burdens of slavery. Suddenly they felt like pawns in a cosmic arm-wrestling contest between Pharaoh who held the power of life and death over them for their entire lives, and this invisible God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that Moses kept claiming was the unseen source of these daily terrors.
It was not a pretty picture for them, more like a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” kind of situation. And yet in this week’s portion, in the midst of their fear, trepidation, insecurity, and terror, Moses demands that they take sides and choose. Remaining passive and on the sidelines as mere witnesses to the Moses/Pharaoh drama is now not an option anymore. So imagine how scary it truly must have been.
I have always been amazed at how the story turns, how the promise of liberation from slavery, from oppression, from the crush of domination and Egyptian cruelty ultimately depends not on the power and magic of Moses, but on the slaves themselves being willing to stand up and openly defy Pharaoh and the Egyptian way of life.
It is particularly fascinating to me since the success of Joseph in Egypt in the first place involved adopting Egyptian customs, dress and way of life. Now as they prepare for liberation, they need to publicly reject the ways and beliefs of the Egyptians and put their faith in the values, principles, and God of their own ancestors.
That is why the most powerful moment of the liberation drama comes when the Israelites are challenged to smear the blood of lambs on their door posts in a public defiance of the Egyptian way of life. This is the moment of truth, the moment to demonstrate their faith in the future and the physical act that demonstrates their commitment to follow Moses and the invisible God of the Jewish people.
I wonder what I would have done had I been there. I wonder each time I read this story what the moments are in my own life when I am challenged to stand up and be counted for what I believe in, and to demonstrate the courage of my convictions that Judaism matters and is worth passing on to the generations yet to come.
Of course in a very real sense I feel as if every single day is such an opportunity. Every morning when I wake and say a prayer of thanks for being alive to greet the dawn, I feel as though in the simple act of reciting that morning prayer in Hebrew, is an act of defiance against every despot who dreamed of wiping the Jewish people from the face of the planet in every generation. Yes, I guess that is my way every single day of smearing the blood on the doorposts of my life.