“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
This week we read about the majority of the plagues. Who is the target audience of the plagues? The text seems to make it about the Pharaoh. Each plague seems to be designed to get the Pharaoh to relent and free the Israelites, but when he is ready to let the people go, the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by God.
When the Israelites finally do escape (sorry for the spoiler), they just pick up and go. The plagues don’t actually free them and just as before, the Pharaoh only lets them go for a short while before he changes his mind. Then the Egyptian army follows them to the Sea of Reeds and traps the Israelites. In their moment of panic there seems to be no thought of fighting the Egyptians.
The Torah’s record of the Israelite’s leaving Egypt counts about 2 million people. That’s a lot of people. I think we can assume that the ratio of Israelites to Egyptian slave masters was pretty favorable to the Israelites. Yet, they never try to escape.
It’s almost as if the Israelites are incapable of freeing themselves.
I think that’s what is happening here. The Israelites are so broken and so stuck that they can’t leave. If more than 2 million people try to leave, they can just go. Some will die, but the others will be free. Still, they just can’t do it.
Slavery transforms a person from a self determinative person to a marching ant. Everyone needs self respect and confidence to succeed. A slave has none.
The plagues were not a punishment for the Pharaoh or the Egyptians. God wasn’t strategically weakening the Egyptians either. We didn’t need that in order to leave. We could have left as soon as we were ready. What we lacked, was the autonomy and courage to believe in ourselves and our God. The plagues were for us. God was telling us, “look what I am doing for you! You are worth all of this!”
But the Pharaoh has enough. He wants us to go, to leave him alone. But we are not ready to go. So God hardens his heart to give us more time to develop this self determination. The plagues are about us. Even if the Pharaoh is ready to let us go – we are not ready to go. Finally, after 10 plagues we have the strength to leave and we just get up and go. The same way we could have gone all along. The difference now, is that we are strong enough to leave our slavery behind. But it is short-lived. Our first crisis sends us right back to our slavery mentality as we lack the inner strength to fight at the Sea of Reeds.
Throughout the journey through the desert, the Israelites battle these demons. They struggle with believing their self worth and even cry that they want to go back to Egypt. In the end, the slaves do not enter the Land of Israel. They do not inherit true freedom. They simply cannot make the full transformation from slave to free person. The Torah is all about that transition.
This is the story of our life as well. We are born as slaves to ourselves and our instincts and our life is a journey towards freedom. Life is that transition. At some point we realize we are strong enough to live our own self determinative life. That is freedom. But it is always short-lived. Our struggles challenge us and we question whether we can do it. Whether we are truly free to live our best life.
Self awareness, like the escape from slavery, is only the moment the journey begins. Then we can deal with the tension in our freedom. Now we are free to live in our struggles. We will try to go back to slavery sometimes, but we can’t go back. We are awake and we are destined to live in this tension until we enter the Promised Land.