As I write this, I am plagued by an injury sustained while strength-training. Ostensibly, the damage to the muscle and tissue is a result of heavy deadlifting. Truly, however, this injury arose from single-minded stubborness and a willingness to sacrifice the body in service of the ego. I routinely skip rest days, ignore pain, and restrict my intake of nutrients. This injury was inevitable and I’m fortunate it wasn’t much worse.
In this week’s parsha, Egypt is plagued. Moses, with the help of his brother Aaron, is on a divine mission to free his people from slavery. Pharaoh is unmoved by the repeated entreaties to free the Israelites. Our Torah tells us that it is God who has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order to prove divine power irrefutably. We may also understand the economic benefit of slave labor to the Egyptian state. After a few generations, it may indeed be very difficult to relinquish such capital.
So, plagues are delivered to demonstrate the supremity of the Israelites’ God. Water turns to blood, frogs overrun the countryside, lice rises from dust, and swarms of insects bedevil people and animals alike. An unspecified pestilence causes livestock to sicken and die, boils erupt on flesh, and hail inflicts vast damage. Despite the horror that is surely wrecked on the Egyptian people and land, Pharaoh remains resolute. Although he often concedes to Moses’ demands, he always changes his mind at the last moment. “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers. So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had foretold through Moses” (Exodus 9:34-35).
In our Torah, such plagues are direct messages intended to disrupt habitual patterns of behavior and foster new perspectives. Pharaoh’s comfortable reality encompasses an Egyptian pantheon of gods and the entrenched idea of Israelites as Egyptian slaves. Recognizing the Israelites’ God as all powerful, and embracing the concept of the Hebrews as an independent people, is a radical departure from all Pharaoh has known and believed. Only extreme events can bring about such a change.
Although I have been aware that my own routines were not necessarily supportive of optimal health, I’ve never experienced an immediate need to re-evaluate my priorities. With this injury, I have endured unremitting pain and been sidelined from virtually all physical activity. I have been forced, much like Pharaoh, into new ways of thinking. Unlike Pharaoh, my ego has indeed surrendered to my body.
Our world today is plagued by so much. Poverty, hunger, obesity, violence of all kinds, racism, pollution, disease… The list is much longer than we can easily comprehend. This parshah reminds us that such plagues are calls to action. What must we change in order to effectively address them? What thinking must be shifted? What behavior must be transformed? In our individual lives, in our communities and globally, we all are gifted plagues so that we might grow into paths of wellness and righteousness. Change your thinking, change your world.