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)