A Rabbi’s Re-Imagining of the 10 Plagues: Blood Money, Self-Judgment, Consumption, Time, Extremists, Gun Violence, and More

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
April 18, 2014

This is the fifth in Zeek’s intergenerational Passover series of feminist plagues. We’re publishing a new one for each day of Passover, featuring Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Chanel Dubofsky, Avigayil Halpern, Susan Lubeck, Jacqueline Nicholls, Sarah Seltzer, and Rabbi Elianna Yolkut.

Frog Spawn

Plague #1 Dam, Blood: Blood money. 82 cents on the dollar, yup women still don’t get paid equal pay for equal work. Our blood, sweat and tears — our college and graduate degrees, late-night meetings, and early morning conference calls are deemed less valuable. We simply are not compensated equally to our male colleagues, friends and spouses. The blood money drips in every corner of society, and we are swimming in it as the Egyptians had to because we are all struggling each day to put food on our table and clothes on our children. So we claw and stretch to work more hours, take time from our children and families, and in doing so we renew over and over again a system that says women’s time, women’s energy, women’s effort is less valuable. The blood money is coursing through Main Street and Wall Street.

Plague #2 Tsfardaya, Frogs: Frogs are cold-blooded amphibious creatures that hatch in cold environments, so the rabbis teach that the plague of frogs was meant to remind the Egyptian of the emotional distance and lack of intimacy that is a necessary prerequisite to enslave someone. Today technology is the cold-blooded creature that jumps into every moment of our lives, taking away our very ability to connect with others, to create space for intimacy with our children, our significant others and our friends. Technology can be an amazing tool for connectivity, but when it runs amuck, technology leaves us with no chance to find intimate connection, face to face, looking into the eye of the other.

Plague #3 Kinim, Vermin: The Jewish mystics taught that vermin come from the dust, the ground beneath, and they become powerful because they move from this lowly beginning and invade every nook and cranny of Egypt. Beginning as the lowest of low, their power is in their ability to overrun every wall, corner and person. Our vermin is the quiet voice of self-judgment inside and nagging doubts, which begins as a tiny intermittent whisper, increasing in volume and frequency, our self-image. The words we use to bruise our souls: I am not working hard enough; I am working too hard and not spending enough time with my kids and my spouse; I am useless; I can’t do anything right. The dust develops into lice, which demoralize and debase one’s life. Like lice, these words suck out a person’s vitality, purpose and mission. You know the voice in your head who says, “Don’t ask for help or people will think you are a failure. Don’t admit your life is messy. Ensure everyone is smiling in the photos.” The voice that tells us quietly and effectively our neighbor, our sister, our friend does it better. We can be richer, we can work harder, parent with more energy, we can be perfect. Doubt spreads like vermin, leaving us ill with a disease that bruises our hearts, minds and souls without ever leaving an external mark.

Plague #4 Arov, Beasts: The fourth plague, the rabbis taught, was a swarm of devouring beasts attacking Egypt, a physical symbol of unhealthy judgment — animals run wild, without control. **In our world this is our own in-fighting, critiquing and criticizing, external judgment. ** Degrading women who stay at home as full-time mothers, women who work full time , men who are allies, women who choose to have children without a spouse, women who choose not to have children, gay, straight, rich and poor — we devour each other. We make judgments and pronouncements; we tell people what choices to make and how to live their lives if they want to live “our truth.” We know what is right for the woman next to us on the train, in the playground, in the classroom, or across the boardroom. Vision with purpose is one of the greatest gifts in life. It is the engine that drives human beings to achieve greatness and make a difference in the world. Yet if we do not refine this character trait, our ambitions can turn us into “devouring beasts” that crush and destroy our allies around us.

Plague #5 Dever, Cattle Disease: In other words, Epidemic! Epidemics harm people silently and inconspicuously, hence why they spread so virulently and successfully. Consumption, we all of us seek to get more and more — more money, more power, more luxuries. Our endless desire to consume has caused damaged to our planet, to our bodies and changed the very nature of our society. We have focused all of our energy on being owners of the earth and in turn we have spilled toxic chemicals into our food and water supply and pollutants into our air. We breathe, eat and drink toxins in our race to have the most, and as a result bodies are infected with diseases of excess — diabetes, heart disease and cancers. We have focused so much energy on having instead of moderation that the economic gap between rich and poor multiplies every day, and each of us is plagued by the idea lo dayenu, it is never enough. It is conspicuous consumption no longer, an epidemic of wants instead of need, one in which we are willing to sacrifice much for our enduring need for more — our bodies, our earth and our souls.

Plague #6 Sh’chin, Boils: The Hebrew term for this plague, sh’chin, implies heat. In Kabbalah, fire embodies the soul’s capacity to reject and thus the boils are the physical symbol of cruel rejection. The cruel rejection of the ceilings, glass or otherwise that limit women, racial and ethnic minorities, those at a socioeconomic disadvantage from growth and success in the workplace, at home and around the globe. The HR person who makes an inappropriate comment about your clothing during an interview, a boss who passes you over for a promotion for your more junior male colleague, the patient who wants to see the real doctor or the congregant waiting for the real rabbi. The board that won’t offer any kind of family leave to a male parent. These ceilings reject the best and brightest because of a bias, an expectation and a judgment made not based on any evidence but on the “heat” of assumptions and intolerance.

Plague #7 Barad, Hail: The rabbinic sages taught each plague was a natural occurrence but had a miraculous quality to it which made it plague worthy. Inside each ice pellet there was fire burning inside the ice without being extinguished. These are religious and political extremists trying to gain power in Syria, in Crimea, in Israel, in Uganda and in America who burn with a passion for their way of seeing the world, while their cold and harsh exterior suppresses dissent and differing opinions. Their passion for power burns as a raging fire and their treatment of “the other” is cold as ice.

Plague #8 Arbeh, Locusts: Invading locusts left no greenery in their path, no growth to be seen or experienced. Bullying — children harassed because they are different, because they are perceived as the weak link, in our schools, our playgrounds and our families. By bearing witness to this on soccer fields, in our homes and when our kids are socializing without taking action, we are the bully’s advocates, and we cover the new fresh hope for a spring eternal by darkening the world of a child. These are the teachers and parents, men and women who do not hold their own children accountable, who do not work hard to make the tough choices, set expectations high for ethical and moral standards that demand righteousness and justice for all no matter their gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status. Bullying invades a culture ensuring no growth for the oppressor or the victim — stunted in, or before, their prime.

Plague #9 Choshech, Darkness: Time. We sit in our darkened homes late into the night or exceedingly early in the morning when the sun has yet to rise, finishing those necessary tasks that fall on us: the last load of laundry to be folded, the work deadline to be met, the school forms to fill out, and the emails that need a response. We are isolated and alone, taking on our infinite tasks and unable to see a way for our lives to be less harried and calmer. The Torah says the suffering of the ancient darkness was so thick no one could see their fellow man. Today our tasks lists are so consuming there is no escaping, no way to see our partner, our children or our friends and know things can be different. We are dwelling in the darkness that compels us to sit still and repeat each day the trope of squeezing in one more task, one more job, one more errand.

Plague #10 Makat b’chorot, Striking the Firstborn: The tenth and final plague, the death of every Egyptian firstborn, was the most devastating of all. It destroyed the future of the Egyptians by wiping their strongest child, the next generation. Today, this is gun violence. The nightly news is rife with stories in our backyards, schools, streets and homes. It pervades neighborhoods affluent and not. It has taught us our children are no longer safe — they are in the crosshairs of death, of a bloody slaying in even our most precious environments. We bear witness to a society unwilling, unable to make change happen as our children are cowering in closets, in bathrooms and behind human shields as innocent victims of troubled human beings with deadly weapons in their hands.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut is a rabbi without portfolio who strives to bring joy, understanding and deep connection to Judaism for people at all life stages. Raised with three brothers in St. Louis, where as a toddler she would often lose herself in the folds of her father’s talit, Elianna is a thinker, writer and educator who seeks new models for religious community-building and fresh ways to teach Torah. Ordained in 2006 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, she was later an adjunct there while serving as assistant rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Adat Ari El in nearby Valley Village. Elianna, who holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology from Brandeis University, lives with her partner and their young twins in Washington, DC. She tweets @rabbielianna.

Editor’s Note

This project was inspired, generally, by the 39th Annual Feminist Seder held this March at the home of Barbara Kane and the conversations we had there about creating more intergenerational spaces for feminists and social justice activists, and, specifically, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s reading there of “The Ten Plagues According to Women,” which appears here. Over the past few weeks, I reached out to Jewish feminists between the ages of 17 and 70-something, asking each to use the 10 Plagues as a point of departure. TTo redefine them or reflect on what each sees as today’s plagues, from a Jewish feminist perspective. Spread the word about this intergenerational Zeek series for Passover, featuring Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Chanel Dubofsky, Avigayil Halpern, Susan Lubeck, Jacqueline Nicholls, Sarah Seltzer, and Rabbi Elianna Yolkut.—Erica Brody

Hey, Zeek Readers! Be active participants in this conversation. Share your own list of modern-day plagues! Think about the themes that underlie or distinguish these plagues and respond in the comments! Share!

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com