Over the course of the this week and last week’s parashiot, it’s been all about the plagues. In last week’s parsha, Va’era, we read of the first seven signs, or plagues. They were (come on now, can you remember them from the Seder? If you feel inclined to dip your finger in some nearby glass of something as you read these next words, feel free): blood, frogs, lice, swarming things, pestilence attacking animals, boils and hail. The last three that appear in this week’s parasha, Bo, are: locusts, darkness, and finally, the slaying of the first born throughout Egypt.
These signs affected the natural environment in which both the Israelites and Egyptians lived. As it says in “The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary” (p. 338), “The events can be seen as a sequence of five pairs: two Nile transformations, two infestations of insects, two epidemics, two crop destructions, two conjuring of darkness and death”. Many scholars have wondered, with all these environmental disasters befalling the land, were the Israelites also suffering from them? And of course, there are different answers.
Some midrashim (explanatory stories) say that right from the start the Israelites did not experience the plagues as the Egyptians did, sort of signaling from the beginning that they were a people apart. But Ibn Ezra (12th c Spanish rabbinic scholar) says, “the plagues of blood, frogs and lice all affected both the Egyptians and Hebrews….for the plague of swarms, God separated the Egyptians and the Israelites.” He said the crop devastation didn’t matter to the Israelites, since they were leaving soon anyway!
The actual text doesn’t mention any of this, until the plague of arav, swarms of insects (plague #4), in which God says they would only appear where the Egyptians are living, not in Goshen, where the Israelites lived. (Ex: 8:18) Same thing happened when all the animals died, (plague #5), hail (#7) and finally, in this week’s parasha, darkness (#9): “….thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three day. People could not see one another….but to all the Israelites there was light in their dwellings.” (Ex 10:22-23)
Well, remember that Moses had a dual audience; these plagues were not only for Egypt’s “benefit”, to convince Pharaoh that God was more powerful than he was. The Israelites also needed to be convinced that there was a redeeming God, who would take them out of slavery, and Moses was the guy who worked on God’s behalf. They’d been slaves for hundreds of years. Convincing that community to see itself as a united people was going to take some doing. They needed to see and believe in God’s power, too.
Slowly, the plagues began to isolate the Israelites from the Egyptians in a way that slavery hadn’t. They were beginning to see themselves as a group directly affected by God, directly receiving God’s attention and benefit; indeed, beginning to believe in God altogether. In this way, they were being prepared for leaving. The people’s identity as a people was beginning to be carved out by God, not by the people themselves. God had to lead them to start seeing themselves as a group apart, not in a negative, slave-mentality way, but in a more positive, strong-sense-of-community way.
Slavery has a way of dividing whole families and communities, as we know from our own country’s sad and shameful history. But as the plagues of Exodus began to separate out the Israelites from the Egyptians, and more importantly, as the Israelites themselves began to see themselves as part of a positive, identified community, they were getting more and more ready to take on the world outside their bondage experience, as a group, as a wholeWe can’t form our identities, whether personal or communal, until we are able to see ourselves as separate from those around us. We know this as we watch children grow and begin to separate their self-image from that of their parents. This isn’t a harmful thing; to the contrary, it is a necessary step on the way to forming that crucial self-image. Healthy individuals take the middle path between group mentality and extreme individualism. So it is with a healthy community. Being affected or not affected by the plagues was the beginning of our national self-identity. Striving for the healthy balance in the way in which we manifest our identities, between the universal and particular, between humanity in general, and the Jewish community in particular, is what will keep us continually on the path toward true liberation.