Rabbi’s Message, January 17, 2024
SECRETS OF THE RIVERBED
Illustration: Chronicles: News of the Past in the Days of the Bible (three volumes)
Maybe it’s a good thing that the Ten Plagues are not happening today. I can see the headlines now, focused on the indiscriminate punishment of innocent Egyptian civilians. Turn to the in-depth news programs and we would hear talking head pundits suggesting that the Ten Plagues are aimed at the wrong party: rank and file Egyptians really do not benefit from the slave labor of the Israelites, but only the 1% of Pharaoh’s inner circle. Then, in the weekend news-magazine, we would be treated to a group interview of the tribal leaders of other enslaved peoples in Egypt, reminding us that the Israelites are not the only victims of the Pharaonic remilitarization of the north-eastern frontier of the country. From the temples in Memphis we would hear sermons indicting the God of the Hebrews for being more bloodthirsty than a proper deity ought to be. Even the Nile Hydrological Institute would get into the act, with a press release castigating the Hebrews and their God for upsetting the delicate ecological balance of the Nile delta. Editorials in the tabloid press would go beyond the genteel antisemitism of the highbrow papers. The Thebes Times and the Pi-Ramese Post would call for proportionality in righting the wrongs of yesterday, but the tabloids would go further, charging that Israelites are enemies of humankind for insisting on bringing retribution to the killers who murdered the Israelite babies during the previous administration. Had the Hebrews been murdered in genocidal numbers? Well, yes, but those who are the most refined and sophisticated people-- in their own eyes-- don’t want to think about that now…
The Bible comes to us from the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. It speaks across millennia because its message is perennial. But its specific form—the words and the topics—are based on the Bible being intelligible to its original audience. That audience was different from us precisely because it had not yet been refined by the Bible’s teaching. The Bible set in motion an advance in ethical sensibility, although we sometimes wonder if our behavior in modern generations justifies the term “modern.” It is disingenuous for us, today, to criticize the Bible for being the shoulders of the giant upon which we are perched. We are able, thanks to the Bible, to scan a farther horizon.
But all that said, we read the Bible from where we are in time. This year, we read the account of the Ten Plagues from a place of existential challenge. On October 7, Israel suffered the worst losses to terror in its entire history. The Jewish people suffered the worst episode of mass murder since the Holocaust. The world noted that at the time, but any understanding that it was a Pearl Harbor moment, a 9-11 moment, for Israel and the Jewish people, is now lost in the inexorable focus on the immediate news cycle.
Israel is striking back at the Hamas terrorists. Inevitably, it is fighting in the dense urban space that Hamas has chosen as its human shield. As reports of civilian dead dominate the airwaves, how should a Jew react?
With sadness, and also with determination. We are the people who take the drops of wine out of the winecup on Passover, when we recite the Ten Plagues, because we diminish our joy in knowing that the Egyptian people suffered.
I believe that Israel does what it can to minimize civilian losses. If this round is different than previous rounds, it is because the scope of the Hamas murderousness and brutality, coupled with its open declaration that it will commit such crimes again and again, has produced a change in the basic Israeli understanding of how to survive with such murderers next door: instead of merely brushing them back, as Israel had done for nearly two decades, Israel now seeks to create the conditions for a Gaza that can be governed by more responsible leaders.
If American somehow forces Israel to stop short of victory, it is a signal to Hamas to rebuilt and resume its mass murder. As American Jews, I urge us to lobby our government to allow Israel to complete the task of creating the basic preconditions for a more peaceful Middle East in years to come.