When I first watched Return of the Jedi, I don’t recall feeling much sympathy for Darth Vader when, and I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it, he dies at the end of the movie. He had been set up from the beginning as the bad guy, and it was hard to see him as anything buy, even though he was the one to eventually kill the Emperor and end the fighting. However, over time as I have returned to these movies, and with the back story in the prequel, I find myself much more sympathetic to his plight.
It is similar with Pharaoh and the story of the Ten Plagues. As a child, I read of these miraculous events with awe at God’s supernatural abilities, and I largely ignored the suffering of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. With age I became more uncomfortable with the suffering that happened so that we could flourish, and especially God’s role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart – so that they could do nothing to stop their suffering.
The break between Parashat Va-era and Bo interrupts the narrative of these plagues, and we are left to wait an entire week to find out what happens next.
The first two verses make for very uncomfortable reading (Exodus 10:1-2):
‘And Adonai said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the hearts of all of his servants, so that I can put these signs of Mine among them. In order that you can tell in the ears of your children, and the children of your children how I mocked/destroyed in Egypt, and placed My signs amongst them –and you will know I am Adonai.”’
According to the text, the whole exercise, the immense Egyptian suffering, has been for the benefit of future generations who will know Adonai through the tales of these plagues. What had previously appeared to be a rescue mission (Exodus 3:7-10) has been transformed into something different. Future generations will learn about God, and follow God, through the stories of havoc and destruction which rained down on Egypt.
The word hitalalti, either means mockery or destruction, so that we are confronted either by a mocking God, a destructive God, or even the possibility of both. This wouldn’t be the first time we see God in this light, but it is certainly the first time we see God manipulating a situation to this extent. So where do we go from here, reading the story as adults?
Are we supposed to understand God as an impulsive Deity, using death and destruction to teach a lesson – a questionable means to a necessary end? Are we intended to view God as a sadistic abuser, destroying an entire nation for mere amusement? Or maybe God is the divine judge, meting out justice on those who have sinned and caused others suffering. This portion offers a myriad of lessons to take away, so which one do we follow? Well that is up to you.
More than anything else, the text offers us the challenge of finding our own lesson. God does not command that our children shall shema – hear this story. Instead the text instructs tesaper beoznei, which literally means recount in their ears. We have a role in the transmission of this story. We have a responsibility to teach our children not only the story, but also the lessons that we learn from it. These lessons may make us uncomfortable, and these lessons may challenge our previous understandings, but these lessons allow a deeper relationship with the text. And it allows us the opportunity to grow with the text, so that what we teach this year might not be the same as what we choose for next year.