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Partway Through the Plagues

12/30/2021 04:55:38 PM


How do we handle setbacks on our journey to freedom and success?

The Israelites suffered generations of slavery.  In last week’s portion, Moses told them that their centuries of bondage would soon be at an end.  And yet, Moses’s pronouncement was followed by even more intense enslavement, as Pharaoh commanded that the Israelites must provide their own straw for the bricks.  Of course, God had already warned Moses that this would be the case- that Pharaoh would be hard-hearted, and that many plagues, including the death of the Egyptian first-born, would be needed before the suffering would end.

This week, when Moses returned to the Israelites, they simply would not listen (Exodus 6:9) “When Moses spoke to the Israelites, they would not listen to him, due to their impatience and harsh labor.”  A setback made them unable to look ahead.  Indeed, the Israelites would face more suffering. Based on our portion this week, some sages suggest (though others disagree) that the Israelites were not totally spared from the first three plagues- the descriptions of the Nile turning to blood, the invasion of frogs, and the lice upon the land, do not specify that the Israelites were exempted. Only with the fourth plague, the swarms, does God indicate that the land of Goshen would be set apart, and from then on, the Israelites were spared.  Their animals were not harmed by the hail, they had light when the Egyptians had darkness, and their firstborn did not die.

There is an obvious analogy to the situation that our world faces at the moment.  The first year of COVID was like the Egyptian slavery- we were all, to some extent, passive victims.  Many of us hoped that mass vaccinations would be the end of the plague, or that it would die off on its own.  Having a proposed solution in front of us, and having it not work immediately can make us, like the Israelites, frustrated and impatient.  But sometimes things have to get worse before they got better.    We are now entering the “10 plagues” portion of the experience.   Those who are vaccinated will be like the Israelites during the first three plagues- we will experience illness, upheaval and disruption, but only up to a point.  At the fourth plague, the stories diverge.  Those who persist in the path of  poor choices will suffer greater disruption and, though I pray otherwise, perhaps even death.  By the 8th plague, even some of the Egyptians begin taking steps to avoid the last plagues, but it was too late to dodge the smiting of the firstborn.  

Unfortunately, all of us will need to go through the rest of the plagues, it's just a question of how we experience them. I am  particularly worried  for our medical professionals and other front-line workers who are now living out the consequences of others’ bad choices.

 Looking beyond our current situation, many of us face times in life where we experience hope, and even progress, and then suffer a setback.  I often speak to people who have encountered a setback in their work/career, their intimate relationships, or their personal spiritual development or observance. They must choose whether to give up, or hope for a greater future.  When we suffer such a setback, we may indeed be like the Israelites, unable to hear the instructions for the path ahead. We may even suffer some plagues that were not meant for us.  But that is precisely the point where we must persist in our faith.    What the story of the Exodus teaches us is that setbacks are part of the journey- sometimes multiple plagues need to play out before we emerge, free.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784