Through the eyes of a child—understanding God’s messages

B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

The Bible is an answer to the question: how to sanctify life. And if we say we feel no need for sanctification, we only prove that the Bible is indispensable. Because it is the Bible that teaches us how to feel the need for sanctification.”

—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man

Our second child, Zakai, struggles with a neurological disorder known as Tourette’s syndrome. Thankfully, his physical and vocal tics are relatively mild, but it is clear that he battles mightily to control these involuntary movements and sounds—especially in social settings. Zakai is also, in many ways, the most sensitive and philosophical of our children. He grasps nuance, intuits the pain and discomfort of others and possesses a remarkably fine-tuned sense of propriety and justice—all at the tender age of 11. 

It was on Pesach several years ago when I realized once again how precious a soul we had birthed into the world. Our second seder is always held at the shul and it is open to the entire community. Unlike our home-based seder on the first night, we use a whole slew of contemporary props, gimmicks and shtick to engage and entertain the participants. As we arrived at the section dealing with the Makot (plagues), I distributed small burlap sacks to each table. Inside the sacks were small toys depicting the horrific plagues which the Almighty rained-down upon the Egyptians. Children and adults alike delighted in the opportunity to play—with frogs, lice vermin and boils.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Zakai. He was visibly uncomfortable and his face was slightly contorted. I assumed that he was experiencing a particularly difficult manifestation of his Tourette’s.  Walking over to him, placing my hand softly on his cheek, I asked if he was alright. As he looked up to meet my gaze, I could see that he was fighting back tears. “Not now, Abba. But can we please talk after everyone leaves?”

The rest of the seder felt like an eternity. But when it finally came to an end and we bid our guests farewell, I anxiously began searching for my son. Entering my study, I found him sitting in a chair at my desk frantically thumbing through books about Pesach.

“Hey Zak, whatchya looking at?” “Abba, I just don’t get it. How could people have so much fun with the Makot? Don’t they know how horrible those plagues were? Why did you give them all those toys to play with? And what really bothers me is why did God find it necessary to punish the Egyptians so severely and with such intensity? Why so many plagues and why so much suffering? Isn’t God merciful and doesn’t the Holy One want all people to do Teshuvah (repentance)? Couldn’t God have found a way for the Egyptians to have a change of heart without so much destruction and death? And even if some kind of punishment was necessary, why ten, and not just one plague? What kind of God does something like that and what kind of religion celebrates the suffering of people—even bad people?”

Blown away by the depth of his empathy, I sat down next to him and reassured him that he was not the first to be disturbed by the Makot (plagues). Knowing of his burgeoning interest in finding textually based justifications for Jewish attitudes and behaviors, I opened a Chumash (Bible) and pointed to a comment by RASHI (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) that I had learned in my youth. 

So God led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were “VaChamushim” when they went up out of Egypt (Exodus 13, 18).

Quoting the Midrashic collection known as the Mechilta and commenting on the problematic word “VaChamushim”, RASHI offers an interpretation that is little-known most likely because it is somewhat destabilizing.  

VaChamushim” means “divided by five”. Meaning that one out of five [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [of the Israelite people] died during the three days of darkness.

This observation regarding the 9th plague, frames the entire phenomenon of the Makot in a most poignant way. According to this insight, under the cover of darkness, in what we call Choshech Mitzrayim (utter and complete darknesspitch black), a significant number of Israelites (the preponderance, in fact) perished. What I think this piercing comment suggests is that the plagues were a tool utilized by the Almighty to excise negativity from the world not only by humbling and toppling the paradigmatic Evil Empire that was Egypt, but also through the winnowing out of the negativity which was present (maybe even ubiquitous!) within our people, Am Yisrael.

Thus, when we at our seders recall the plagues and remove drops of wine from our Kiddush Cups, we are reminding ourselves not only to minimize celebrating the downfall of our foes who tragically suffered for their lack of deference to God’s supremacy, we also bring to light our own missteps and limitations. The ritual of the removal of wine from our Cups of Celebration, serves to trigger within us a sense of responsibility to live lives that are in consonance with the Divine Will. If we ever hope to actuate our righteous calling as a Treasured People, we must engage continually and with vigilance in refining ourselves. If we fail to do so, we too will be subject to self-inflicted degradation, excruciating suffering and agonizing Divine decrees. Ignoring the Torah’s call for us to incrementally negate the evil that exists within our own communitywithin our own hearts—is nothing less than a death spiral for us, our way of life and our people.

Taken in this light, the Makot, the 10 dreadful Plagues of Egypt, become not only a deterrent, but also an aide-memoire reminding us of our eternal covenant with the Master-Of-All. A treaty that if abrogated leads to disastrous and catastrophic outcomes.  And it should, therefore, come as no surprise that the quintessential symbol of our Eternal Pact with the Creator is none other than another set of 10, this time the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Utterances) given by God to Moses during the epiphany on Mount Sinai. These 10—unlike the plaguesare constructive. They demand not only a passive refraining from certain ways of being, but also an active attempt to consciously forge a society that functionsat all times—with an acute awareness of high calling and noble mission. As Professor Heschel taught: “We are God’s stake in human history.”

Abba—you mean they’re myths and metaphors? Maybe they never really happened?” “I’m not sure, honey. But I do know one thing for sure. They seem to have done their workat least on you and me. My perspective on sharing the plagues with never be the same, and you are already thinking in holy and Godly ways.” 

Embracing each other tightly, I looked down at the broad, relaxed smile on the face of my sensitive child, closed my eyes and thanked the Almighty for the blessed gift of Torahthe most powerful of instruments for the sanctification of life.