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Belittling Tormentors Allows us to Be Free

Through the process of the ten plagues, the Jews saw the Egyptians for what they were, just another group of petrified humans.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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A friend from New Jersey, who lived through Hurricane Sandy, as did I, called and asked me why God did not send a similar storm against Egypt and Pharaoh. “One plague and that would have done it,” he said. “The Egyptians would have been begging to let the Jews go. So why did God insist on ten?”

I answered him that there are two kinds of freedom. Political freedom and psychological freedom, freedom of the body and freedom of the mind. If God’s intention was to simply liberate the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, He could indeed have sent a single catastrophic event against them, like a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami. It worked against Japan when two devastating atomic bombs brought the Japanese to unconditional surrender.

But even as the Jews were liberated by an external event, they would have remained mentally enslaved.

Here’s why.

Slavery is an institution that is maintained through fear. The slave dreads his master and therefore does his bidding. The German philosopher Hegel said, in essence, that way back at the dawn of history everyone was equal. But one day, two primordial combatants had a fight. As they struggled over whatever the issue was – a cave, a woman, a hunt – one of the combatants became fearful of the other and in that moment the relationship of master and slave was born.

But God’s intention was that no man should have any master except God alone. That’s why there are so many exhortations in the Bible to live boldly and cast away all fear, as I detailed in my book Face Your Fear.

And it’s not just a physical master that we should not fear. The woman who goes on a date cannot fear being judged by the man whom she will meet. If she does she’ll be nervous, betray insecurity, and surrender to a physical side of the relationship that might impede the development of true intimacy. A wife cannot fear her husband. That’s what leads women to remain in abusive relationships. A man cannot fear his boss. If he does, he will allow himself to be exploited and abused and his job will become a form of slavery.

Overcoming fear is the only road to true equality and liberty.

One of the most effective methods to triumph over fear is to cease mentally aggrandizing the object of your fear. The Israelites looked at the Egyptians as supermen. They had built the ancient world’s most glorious civilization. They won wars and established a vast empire. They beat the Jews mercilessly and dominated them completely. So God’s plan in sending the plagues was to humanize the Egyptians in Jewish eyes so such a degree that the fear would disappear. In order for the Jews to be liberated not just politically and externally but mentally and psychologically, the Jews had to see the big and strong Egyptians become utterly helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.

In this context, we can begin to understand the ten plagues and their order. First, God attacks the Egyptians water supply by turning the Nile river into blood. There is nothing quite so feeble as a man who is desperate just for a drink of water. Extreme thirst becomes all consuming and demonstrates our total dependency on something that is usually abundant and economical. But even this the Egyptians could not provide for themselves.

Next, the plague of frogs had the robust and resilient Egyptians freaking out over reptiles. Like an elephant that’s afraid of a mouse, Egyptian might was exposed as a fraud.

After that came the plague of lice, with the Egyptians taskmasters who once seemed so mighty itching uncontrollably and being utterly humbled by a tiny insect. Next, wild beasts roamed through the land and the Egyptians ran scared like frightened children.

You get the picture. The story culminates with the Egyptians being afraid even of the dark, like small kids, and then, the last plague, confronting the fear of death, that which reminds us all of our vulnerability and mortality. Through this process, the Jews saw the Egyptians for what they were. Just another group of petrified humans who had gained dominion over another people by being vicious bullies. But there were easily bullied themselves.

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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