Those of you who have heard me speak before will know that if at all possible I like to put myself in the shoes of the characters involved. Today’s Sedra covers the plagues and the requirement that we remember and recreate Passover each and every year.
So I would like to take us back through time some 3300 years and for us to imagine that we are a bunch of Israelite families living in a remote area, part of the land of Goshen, quite a long way from the palaces of the pharaoh, the temples and the larger market areas. Life is tough, we live in crowded, crumbling huts, sanitation is almost non-existent and fresh water is a long walk away. We live under constant oppression, we are forced to work at huge building sites an hour’s walk away from our homes, some sort of major construction probably to do with the Gods the Egyptian’s worship or some sort of massive tomb. It doesn’t really matter what it is, we just know that we have to work there in dangerous, physically arduous hot conditions, with little time for rest, drinking water or adequate food breaks. If we stop to rest we are beaten by the Egyptians or their slave underlings, who are often even more unpleasant and violent that the Egyptians themselves.
The only ones who aren’t forced to work on those monstrous buildings are pregnant women, those with very small suckling children and the old who are too slow and weak to work. In other words, those who haven’t been worked to death or beaten to death at the work sites. Those who remain at home and amongst our huts, try to cultivate a bit of land, grow a few vegetables, keep a goat and a cow or two and provide some teaching to the little ones. Most of this teaching is based on telling stories of the past, songs and tales that tell about Abraham, the first man to be convinced that there was only one God. The stories also cover his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, and speak most about Jacob’s sons, especially Joseph who was apparently responsible for bringing our ancestors to this terrible life.
More recently, it has got even worse. The Egyptians complain there are too many of us and, they have tried to kill off all our baby boys. But our midwives are so smart, led by Shifrah and Puah, they nearly always outwit the Egyptians and find ways to deliver the babies really fast, so that by the time the soldiers come looking, the new mother and baby are well hidden somewhere else. Amazingly, they even manage to arrange for the snip to take place; that’s a tradition started by Abraham that we do take very seriously and maintain come what may.
Many of us do keep an eye out for the right times of the year to send a gift or two to the Egyptian Gods, because we want to keep them on our side too – even if there isn’t much sign that they give a damn about us. We aren’t even all that sure about Abraham’s God, given the terrible times we are now having to endure.
We are told that once life was good and we Israelites were prosperous and happy, and that we really loved living in Goshen. But how can we believe that life was really like that? We’ve been here as long as any of us can remember, well before our grandparents and even great grandparents.
Well, that may have been then, but now life is – for want of a better word, pretty crummy!
But we do have to admit that recently something does seem to be changing – there is a sort of uneasy, unsettled atmosphere, especially amongst the Egyptians. We hear that strange things have been going on in and around the Pharaoh’s palaces. Rumours of the river water turning to blood, the fish dying and then the land being covered with frogs – we even had some around here, strange looking frogs, not like the ones we sometimes spot in the marshes. And then we heard that the Egyptians and their homes were covered in flies, millions of them, but not a single one in Goshen. Now that is strange, given that most years in the heat of the summer we get all the mosquitos and flies, while the breezes off the Nile keep the rich and fancy people cool. We can’t believe what happened next, all of the Egyptian cattle died from some horrible pestilence that apparently spread from camel travellers crossing the desert, but not one of our goats or cows even sneezed – very strange goings on.
And just recently, the rumour has been spread that it’s all because of some major magic, being put about by some Egyptian Prince called Moses. Only they say he is not Egyptian, but one of us, an Israelite, a brother of that singing woman, Miriam – she was brought into the Palace to look after the Pharaoh’s daughter’s babies and that baby Moses. Not sure we can really believe that – anyway what’s the point of all this trickery, it’s not making our lives any easier. In the end it’ll be us that suffer as a result, once those soldiers have seen him off.
And then there were more rumours of ‘disturbances’. Everyone in the Palace getting boils, even the Pharaoh and his family and all the priests, and that was followed by thunder and lightning along with hail the size of pomegranates (cricket balls not being invented yet) and it damaged all the plants and trees in their fields. And would you believe that we heard just the other day – I am even scared to repeat it – that this Moses fellow is trying to get us all released from Egypt and to take us out of this miserable existence to the land once occupied by Abraham. Can we really believe such a thing is possible?
And just last week, the locusts came, never seen so many! The sky and the land were just covered with them and they ate everything in the Egyptians’ fields, and by the river, and in their houses, everywhere except just around us and our pokey little allotments and scraps of fields. Horrible critters!
Then just four days ago, a horrible dirty inky blackness covered everything for three whole days, that was really unpleasant, we couldn’t even see our own hands.
Is all this strangeness and nastiness really being caused by that Moses fellow? Is he really one of us? It would be good to get away from here and have a better life, but what is actually out there? Isn’t it all just desert? Can we trust him?
A message has just started circulating, apparently from Moses himself and his brother Aaron, coming to all the Israelites wherever they happen to be living, even those on the west side, who are real traditional trouble makers.
Somehow, this Moses has managed to set up a sort of communication network, so that his messages get passed around really quickly. We suppose our elders have accepted him as some sort of new leader or maybe even king. The elders are organised by families, all linking back to those original sons of Jacob, except for Joseph who has families from two of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. All the different main families are called tribes. Moses and his brother Aaron with some help from Miriam have got everyone organised and amazingly all working together – who ever heard of a bunch of Israelites working together? The news gets passed to the elders of each tribe and they pass them down to each family head and then through to the many branches of sons, daughters, nephews and nieces. A sort of really effective Assyrian whispers!
The news is that on the tenth day of this month, we must take a lamb for each full household and for part households we need to sort of join together. The lamb must be a male, no more than one year old and in perfect condition. And then, can you believe it, we’ve got to kill it at dusk on the fourteenth day of the month and use a branch of hyssop to smear its blood on the doorposts of our homes, the side posts and the lintel. Goodness knows what for…And later that night we must roast the lamb on a fire and eat it with some sort of flatbread and with bitter herbs, and what’s more every single piece of it must be eaten, the innards, the head and the legs, so there is absolutely not a morsel left unconsumed. What’s more we have heard that we must eat it with our walking shoes on and dressed to go out, already packed up and raring to go. But whatever else happens, we mustn’t go outside that night.
All because, something terrible, even worse than all those other things, is going to happen to the Egyptians – and the spirits, angels or whatever magic will be abroad, will leave us alone. After that we are told we are going to be able to leave Egypt, all of us, all of the Israelites, that’s like almost the whole population of Goshen! And how is that Moses going to organise that and cope with all of the elderly the babies, the children, the sick and all those who have been disabled by the work on those huge stones when they were moved into place on that strange new temple – you know the one with triangular walls. As well as all that, we are going to take all of our cattle and whatever Egyptian cattle we can lay our hands on, and as much of their gold and silver as we can carry.
Anyway, we’re going to get away, and we have to eat flatbread for seven days. Then, every year in the future, we have to rehearse the same rigmarole to remember this great escape. Can we really believe it’s going to happen?
Well, we can just live in hope and pray that Moses can deliver.
I hope you will forgive me for telling this story a bit differently, but I wanted to show that we, as a people have lived through so much uncertainty over so many generations and we are still here living in hope, building community and celebrating life events.
………….as William Shakespeare said in Twelfth Night: “Better is not good enough; the best is yet to come!”