Va’era – Responding to Pain
Responding to pain is a primal instinct. Pain can put us into a fight-or-flight mode, adrenalize us, or plant fear and trauma in our hearts. Torture techniques were designed to extract information and confessions from people – true confessions or otherwise – with the understanding that people will go to great lengths to make the pain stop. Before trainers learned the more powerful and more consistent motivations driven by positive reinforcement many circus animals were trained using cruel and inhumane methods, invoking obedience out of fear rather than anticipation of reward. How do we respond to pain? What concessions do pressures elicit from us?
While the plagues were nuanced and had multiple objectives, the most simplistic objective was to exert pressure upon Pharaoh to release the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh, who held the power to retain or release them, was the primary target of the plagues. The people of Egypt, who bore the brunt of the onslaught, put pressure on their leader to give in to the demands of the God of Israel.
Even with this most simplistic of interpretations, the narrative of the plagues illustrates Pharaoh’s nature. Pharaoh resisted the pressure, but this was not unexpected. The Lord had told Moses that Pharaoh’s heart will be hardened and he will not release the slaves until later. But at some point the pressure to release the slaves, the pain inflicted by the plagues, must yield results. The first plague did not alter Pharaoh’s position. Despite the scarcity of available drinking water, despite the stench coming from the polluted Nile, Pharaoh was resolute. The Hebrews would not have their holiday. But the next plague produced a crack in Pharaoh’s determination. The infestation of frogs was too much to bear. The critters were everywhere, finding their way even into the food served in the palace. Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, begging that they pray for the removal of the frogs. He pledged to allow the temporary respite Moses had been demanding, allowing the people to serve God in the wilderness. But once the frogs ceased to croak Pharaoh retracted his permission. “And Pharaoh saw that there was relief, and he hardened his heart and did not heed them, as God has spoken.” (Exodus 8:11)
When water reaches a certain temperature it begins to boil. The pressure generated by the heat causes the molecules of water to move more quickly and more freely. The exact temperature for the boiling point differs based on the altitude and air pressure, and other liquids have different boiling points. But enough heat, enough pressure, will always result in boiling. Once the heat is reduced the boiling immediately stops. The lowered pressure allows the water to settle, returning to its static state. When the immediate pressure of the frogs dissipated Pharaoh similarly fell back to his resistance.
Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, in his 17th century commentary Kli Yakar, points out that in regards to no other plague does the Torah state that “Pharaoh saw that there was relief.” This is because, Rabbi Lunschitz posits, different to all other plagues the frogs didn’t disappear. The frogs remained littering the streets of Egypt, the entire country looking like it had an emergency pest extermination. And the stench hung over the country like a cloud. “And the Lord did as Moses said, and the frogs died, from the houses, from the yards and from the fields. And they gathered them in heaps and piles, and the land stank.”(Exodus 8:9-10)
After the first plague the Nile River regained its health and the dead fish were swept downstream. Once the plague of lice was over the effects were limited. The wild beasts moved on, the boils that had ravaged the Egyptians’ skin cleared. Different from the other plagues, however, the frogs were not removed. The remains were visible, still affecting the land with their stench. But they were no longer hopping on the table and underfoot. The pressure had been eased, just below the boiling point. Pharaoh’s response was to revert to his default state, denying the slaves the holiday he had just promised. Similar to the Kli Yakar, the Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez points out that it is normal for people to return to their routine once a threat has passed. President Bush told the people of the United States after 9/11 to go back to their routines, to visit shopping malls and attend ball games. He didn’t want the American way of life to be disrupted by the terror attack; he felt it was best for the nation to heal from the trauma by resuming their normal diversions. This was possible for most of the nation, but for Manhattanites the evidence of the attack was in plain view. The New York skyline was permanently altered, the dust still hung in the air. It would take time for Manhattanites to recover and get back to routine. The mountains of frogs swept up by the Cairo council street sweepers similarly should have prolonged the trauma of the plague. But Pharaoh “saw that there was relief.” The pressure was lowered just enough for him to continue pursuing his objective of enslavement. The people would not go free.
A sensitive person picks up lessons from pain, learning to avoid experiences that cause pain. We feel pain for good reason. We were endowed with a nervous system so that we have early warning signs of harmful stimuli. Rav Nota Schiller, Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach, often cites the verse in Psalms (2:11) “Serve the Lord with awe, rejoice with trepidation.” What does it mean to rejoice with trepidation? How does revelry go together with fear? One would normally negate the other! Rav Schiller explains that King David is expressing appreciation for our nervous system. If we did not feel pain we would not know to avoid danger. If the heat from nearby flames did not cause us burns we would not know to distance ourselves until we were severely harmed by the fire. If one did not experience cramps after eating a food for which one has an intolerance one would never know to avoid that food, and in the meantime it would cause serious harm to one’s health. To “rejoice in trepidation” means to be grateful for our ability to feel pain. Unlike Pharaoh, we remember painful circumstances, incorporating them into our collective memories and rituals.
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald points out that the marror, the bitter herbs we eat on Passover, recalls the bitterness of our slavery, bringing up the memory of past pain. We are grateful for the lessons we learned from the slavery. We have no gain from feeling the pain again for its own sake. Nor are we holding on to these memories for the sake of exacting revenge. But we can better appreciate the subsequent redemption in the context of the earlier suffering. The Passover story would have less meaning if we didn’t include the marror, the oppression, into our annual recollection.
The verse in Micha (7:8) states that “When I fell I have risen, when I sat in darkness the Lord made light for me.” The Midrash on Psalms (Yalkut Shimoni 628) uses similar words to bring out a powerful reflection: “Had I not fallen I would not have risen, had I not sat in darkness the Lord would not have made light for me.” Pharaoh did not allow the pain inflicted upon him to steer him in the right direction. Contrary to Pharaoh, our tradition uses the memory of our past suffering to enhance our gratitude for the subsequent redemption. The struggles of the past lend poignancy to the freedom and independence that followed.