We begin our story with an angry Pharaoh. The Jewish people are suffering more and more under his oppressive bondage. God hears their cries. So, as everyone knows, God sends Moses. Moses worries that Pharaoh will not listen to him. The Jewish people, he complains, have not been such good listeners. Why would Pharaoh listen?
Moses really does not want the job. One of the characteristics of our biblical heroes, especially those called prophets, is that they do not want the job. They do not feel they are qualified or even worthy. God quells his worries by promising to send his brother Aaron with him and of course arms him with a few tricks, for example a staff that magically turns into a serpent.
Moses appears before Pharaoh and says, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” This phrase is often misquoted as “Let My people go” but the second part is perhaps the more significant. The purpose of their freedom is so that they may serve God. For the Bible freedom is meaningless if not wedded to something greater. It is not freedom to do whatever the Jewish people want but instead the ability to worship God in freedom. We replace servitude to Pharaoh with that of service to God. Our Shabbat kiddush reminds us of this. In that prayer we remind ourselves that Shabbat is a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. Only a free people can set a day aside and do no work. Shabbat is not just a recollection of God resting on the seventh day of creation but a weekly reminder that we are free. Passover comes once a year. Shabbat arrives every week. How can we then forget our freedom?
God also helps Moses make his case to Pharaoh by bringing down the familiar plagues on Egypt. There is 1) blood, 2) frogs, 3) lice, 4) wild beasts, 5) cattle plague, 6) boils, 7) hail and in next week’s portion 8) locusts, 9) darkness, and 10) the death of the first born. The plagues raise difficult theological dilemmas. Is the purpose of these plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go or instead to convince the Israelites of God’s mighty power? The refrain that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart would suggest that the larger purpose is to convince the Israelites. That such suffering was necessary to wed the people of Israel to God is disturbing. The Jewish tradition counsels that we must continue to be saddened and mourn the deaths of the Egyptians. We take out a drop of wine at our Seder tables to demonstrate that our joy is mitigated. The midrash tells us that the angels were silenced when celebrating the Egyptians suffering in the Sea of Reeds. God chastises them with the words, “My children are drowning!”
Regardless of our viewpoint, we read that Pharaoh keeps saying no. Why do all the Egyptians have to suffer because of his stubbornness? One answer is that people often suffer because of a leader’s choices. That of course takes me into politics. (These details I have expanded in the sermon’s written form.) Even in our own modern age, there are dictators who behave like the ancient Pharaoh. There is Assad, the current embattled Syrian president, who continues to slaughter his own people so that he can remain in power. To date at least 60,000 Syrians have been killed. Could there be a more fitting example of a modern ruler with a hardened heart?
There is a world of difference but even in democracies leaders too often choose what is best for them rather than what is best for the people they lead. We could cite examples of President Obama who for example looked away from gun violence for nearly four years because he did not want to expend precious political capital on a difficult issue. I imagine he feared losing standing, but in the end he failed to lead. And people suffered. In Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu called for early elections because the timing, prior to a budget vote, served his political interests. Or I could talk about Congress. Here the level of ideological vitriol has reached new and extraordinary levels. Lead. Do what is best for the people you serve rather than the small interests who support your re-election campaigns! Politics of course demand compromise, but more importantly they demand that leaders recall what is in the best interests of those they serve.
The point is that Pharaoh and sometimes our own leaders are so selfish or stubborn that they bring suffering to the people they are supposed to serve. Pharaoh had it exactly backwards. He thought leadership was about being served rather than about service to others. That is why he brought the plagues down on Egypt. Leadership is never supposed to be about the leader. It must always be about those being led. In our stubbornness and hardening of hearts we forget the purpose of our mission to lead. We forget that freedom is about service. And then our forgetfulness leads to our punishments. And that becomes the plague of our own generation.