Plagued (Radical Torah repost)
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Seeking compassion (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion three years ago, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Because I'm spending this year in a hospital doing chaplaincy work, reading parashat Bo is different for me this year than ever before. This year, the death of the firstborn grabs me viscerally and won't let go. This year, it is all too easy for me to imagine the suffering of the mothers, the fathers, the aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, of each of those lives lost.

It is hard to watch others suffer. Torah tells us God hardened Pharaoh's heart, time after time, so that the first plagues and the middle plagues did not lessen his resolve. Only when firstborn sons died throughout the land, from the firstborn of Pharaoh himself to the firstborn of those in the lowliest dungeons, did Pharaoh relent and release us from slavery. But Torah is, typically, matter-of-fact in the retelling. It isn't a novel; it doesn't show us what these terrible wonders felt like for the Israelites. What was it like to take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in lamb's blood, and paint our doorposts red, knowing what we were warding away by the act? What was it like to hear the cries of mothers all around us, in every Egyptian household in the land, bewailing these sudden deaths?

Midrash teaches that, while watching the Egyptians succumb to the ten plagues, the angels broke into songs of jubilation. God rebuked them, saying "My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?" God mourns when we suffer, and yet God allows suffering to exist -- indeed, in this week's Torah portion, God causes the suffering. This is a koan I'm not sure we can fully grasp.

It's easy to sketch an arc of causality from the Joseph story through to the revelation of the Torah at Sinai: Joseph had to be imprisoned so that he might rise up, he had to rise up so that the Israelites might come to Egypt, the Israelites had to come to Egypt in order to be enslaved -- in order to be freed by God's mighty hand and outstretched arm -- in order to wander in the desert -- in order to become ready for revelation. The story balances, each ill matched by a greater good, but if we stop and focus on any one piece the larger narrative recedes and the details can be overwhelming. Imagine the makat b'chorot pandemic, the screams and the wailing, the agonized fear. Did witnessing that suffering, even from behind our own closed (and bloodied) doors, harden our hearts in some indefinable way? Could that be part of why we had to wander forty years before we were ready to become new?

The custom of spilling drops of wine from our glasses as we describe these plagues during seder reminds us that when others suffer, our cup of joy can never be full. As we read these lines of Bo, let us be renewed in our compassion for those wailing mothers, all the women not-like-us who suffered that grievous loss. Egyptian society was unjust, built on slavery, but (as Reb Arthur's post of last week illustrates) we too live in a culture poisoned by power and inequity. And even in a community that is flawed or broken, each child that dies, each livelihood lost, each bloody-river night terror matters. Each is a whole world, to one whose life is circumscribed by that suffering, and these are worlds we as Jews are called to repair.