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The Three Great Lies of the Exodus
Video 2 of 6
So the three signs maybe weren't such a great demonstration that G-d exists, but maybe they weren't supposed to demonstrate that. Maybe it wasn't about G-d existing but who this G-d is and what His message is. That's the kind of faith that was needed. In fact, if you look at the verses, that's what the verses themselves suggest. Right before G-d reveals these signs to Moses, He tells him a message to deliver, a message that Moses fears the people won't believe. Gather together all of the elders of Israel and tell them G-d - Yud, Heih and Vav, Heih - appeared to you. Tell them this; Pakod pakadati etchem v'et he'asu lachem bemitzrayim - I have remembered them. Implicit, I'm going to redeem them. Then, not only have I remembered them but I have remembered what was done to them in Egypt.
This is the message and in fact, the signs do seem to be able to convey that message. Because after the Burning Bush story when Moses actually gathers together the elders like he was supposed to and performs these signs in front of them, that's exactly what they believe. Look at the text. Vaya'amein ha'am - and the people believe - what do they believe? Ki pakad Hashem et benei yisrael - that G-d has remembered them. That redemption is around the corner. Also; Vechi ro'oh et anyam - that G-d has seen their suffering. So this message seems to be a message that's designed to prepare the people, to make sure that they're going to go along with G-d and with Moses in this whole journey. They need to understand that redemption is right around the corner. That kind of makes sense, they need to have faith that it's going to happen.
But you know, if I was writing this text, the only message that I would think that's really important for the signs to convey is that message about the future. They need to have faith that G-d in fact has committed Himself to redeem them. That's enough, that's really the only task that the signs need to accomplish. But it doesn't appear that way from the text, it seems like there were two things that the signs had to accomplish, the people needed to believe something about the future, but they also needed to believe something about the past. The signs would somehow be the vehicle for this. It would help them understand that yes, redemption lies around the corner for them in the future, but that G-d had also seen the past; Vechi ro'oh et anyam - G-d had seen their pain. That's every bit as important. Why?
The answer is that the experience of being oppressed, of being broken down, is not something that just goes away over time. It's not like merely going free heals all wounds. All sorts of scars linger and one of the most tragic effects is the nagging suspicion so often felt by people who have been abused that somehow they deserved what happened to them. There's a kind of weird logic behind it, if you think about it. The fact that the victim they feel so much pain but the perpetrator, life seems so normal for them, they seem so oblivious to what they've done. It's like I'm crazy if I'm complaining, it's like this is all just happening in my own head. I mean, he's normal, I must be the not normal one. That's why abuse needs to be redeemed. The victim needs to see one of two things, that either the aggressor is confronted with what they've done, it's out there, it's real, I'm not crazy, and the aggressor apologizes for what they've done. Or, short of that, if the aggressor continues to live in denial, then there's consequences; their violence in some way comes back to haunt them. The long arm of justice becomes a source of solace for the victim then, helps the victim see that they're not crazy.
That's why it wasn't enough just for G-d to set the Israelites free, to take them out of bondage in Egypt. He couldn't just redeem the people, He had to redeem what was done to them too. How do you do that? How do you both redeem a people, set them free, and redeem what was done to them? The three signs show you the path. Let's examine them and I think you'll see what I mean.
As we look at these three mysterious signs, the staff turning into a snake, the white leprous hand and the water turning into blood, and we ask where should we start if we're trying to sort of figure all this out, what it might mean? I think the answer might be to start at the end. The Torah itself suggests that the last of the signs might well be the easiest to understand. Remember, when G-d first delivered these signs to Moses He said to him; Vehaya im lo ya'aminu loch - if they don't believe you; V'loh yishme'u lekol ha'ot harishon - they don't listen to the voice of the first sign, they'll listen to the voice of the next sign. If they don't listen to that sign, then take from the waters of the Nile, pour it onto the ground, and when the water hits the ground; Vehayu ledam bayaboshet - it will turn into blood. That last sign was supposed to be the dead giveaway. Why would it have been so obvious to them what that meant?
The sign takes place at the Burning Bush, what in the future though does this remind you of, water turning into blood? That's pretty obvious, right? I mean, it really reminds you of the first plague when all of the water in the Nile turns into blood. It seems like that's been presaged here in this sign. But now let's think about that future event, that first plague, the water turning into blood. Was there any sort of rationale for that? Any reason why that of all things ended up being the first plague? When we look back and think of it nowadays it's easy almost to trivialize it, it just seems like a really nifty trick. That's a way to start off the plagues with style. You know, we can sort of pontificate about all sorts of interesting possibilities. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt so the first thing that G-d did was hit them where it counted with the Nile. There's all these kinds of theories you could come up with. But ask yourself this, what would it have meant to the people of Israel themselves to have the Nile turned into blood? How would that have begun to redeem what was done to them in Egypt in G-d's own words?
So think back, what would you say is the worst thing the Egyptians ever did to the Israelites over the long centuries of enforced slavery? It wasn't just the backbreaking labor, it wasn't the fact that they didn't get paid for their work, it wasn't even the cruelty of the taskmasters in the field. It was something else, it was the babies in the Nile. Pharaoh had decreed that all baby boys who were born would be thrown into the Nile to drown, and as if the murder of children wasn't horrifying enough in and of itself, they chose to use the Nile. The Nile was such an important natural resource for them, their whole economy depended upon the Nile, and now they're using it for murder. Why? What was in it for them to do it that way?
It's because the Nile would cover up the crimes. You wouldn't see the victims, the Nile would just look like its placid self, just slowly meandering on its way, with the sun shimmering off the water. There was a kind of built-in plausible deniability. The Ramban in commenting on the murder of the children explains that when the verse says; Vayetzav pharaoh l'chol amo - that Pharaoh commanded all of his people to throw the children into the Nile. All of his people suggested the townsfolk, the regular people. It wasn't carried out by uniformed representatives of the Egyptian Government; the citizenry would find a Jewish child, cast him into the Nile. Then when the bereaved Israelite family would come to the authorities, the authorities would ask for proof, would ask for witnesses, and of course, the Nile would cover all the crimes. For the Israelites it would be this huge disconnect in their experience. The night would be full of screams and anguish, children taken from the arms of their parents and then the morning would come and you'd go outside and somehow everything would look normal. The sun rises like every other morning, the Nile looks the same as it did before, the Egyptians are out there sunbathing on the shore, reading Schopenhauer and playing Mozart on stolen pianos. Israelites are left alone. Alone with their grief to wonder whether they're the crazy ones.
As if the crime wasn't bad enough, nature itself would help hide the crime. The water looked just the same as before until the first plague, when the water turned into blood. It was the first act of justice for this greatest of all crimes. The truth would now be known, there's no hiding anymore, the aggressor is confronted with the reality of his crimes, and, what is justice for the aggressor is the beginning of empathy for the victim. Because the lies are over, the disconnect is over, I wasn't crazy, everyone knows now. Even more than that, G-d shows that He knows. I know what they did to you. That's the first great act of compassion, nature shows that it knows, G-d shows that He knows, there's no more secrets any more.
At that point the Egyptians have a choice, confronted with the reality of their crime they could choose to own up to the crime, to let them go, to apologize, and it could all be over here, justice would have been done. But if they didn't do this, if they continued to oppress the Israelites, they continued to live the lie, then things would progress further, more lies would have to be uncovered. Remember, the water turning into blood was only one of the signs, there were two others as well, what did they mean? Let's come back in the next video and explore that.
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