It is one of the best known stories of the Jewish people, dramatized on film, capturing imaginations around the world, and retold each year around the seder table. In parashat Va’era, we read the beginning of the story of the ten plagues. It is a familiar tale to many of us. In a recurring cycle, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and ask him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh initially refuses and in response God brings a plague upon the land. At several points along the way, Pharaoh appears to be willing to concede and asks Moses and Aaron to remove the plagues. However, each time he sees some amount of relief, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh becomes stubborn and that his heart hardens. He reverses course and refuses once again to let the people go.
In his unwillingness to relent, Pharaoh allows his land and his people to become collateral damage. Most of the plagues take the form of natural disasters. The environment is ravaged — the water the Egyptians rely on is polluted with blood, the land stinks with piles of dead frogs, fields are ruined by swarms of insects, livestock die from pestilence, and any crops, trees, or animals that managed to survive this far are destroyed by hail.
We can imagine the devastating impact of these plagues on the Egyptian people. Even when Pharaoh seemingly changes his mind and requests that the plagues be reversed, the people are left to deal with the aftermath. The removal of the immediate cause of the problem does not diminish the long-term agricultural, economic, and social effects of the plagues.
With their livelihood destroyed and survival in question, we would expect an outcry from the Egyptian people. Gradually, we see Pharaoh’s magicians, courtiers, and the general population realize that the problems are not going away any time soon and that action must be taken before it is too late. By the time of the seventh plague, hail, the Torah tells us that “those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word” began to take the plagues seriously and took action to protect their servants and livestock (Exodus 9:20).
At last, it seems that Pharaoh is ready to accept responsibility. Following the destruction of the seventh plague, Pharoah tells Moses and Aaron “I have sinned this time; the Lord is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27). Moses agrees to end the plague, but replies to Pharoah “I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear the Lord God” (Exodus 9:30). Indeed, no sooner has the hail let up, but Pharaoh and his courtiers are back to their stubborn ways.
Reading and retelling this narrative, this cycle seems almost farcical. Why is Pharaoh so obstinate, even in the face of far-reaching consequences of the plagues? How could a leader repeatedly make such damaging choices, when the consequences of ignoring the evidence are clear and the remedy is available? And why do the Egyptian people not demand immediate action when the plagues threaten their survival?
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to find examples of contemporary leaders following in Pharaoh’s footsteps. One such example is not far from the crises brought on by the plagues. Generations of American and world leaders of all political persuasions have failed to take decisive action on global climate change, despite scientific findings decades ago that identified both the problem and ways to reverse or minimize its impact.
Like the story of the plagues, the history of inaction, half-hearted concessions, and reversals of policy on climate change will have wide-ranging and long-term effects on the world’s resources, our food and water supply, and the habitability of many areas of our planet. Similarly, the scientific consensus and remedy has been known for some time. As with the plagues, the longer we wait to take action, the more dire the consequences become.
Of course, our leadership is not solely to blame. We, the people, also hold responsibility. When we read the story, we ask ourselves how the Egyptians could have been so deeply in denial about what was happening. And yet we might recognize ourselves in them. We may have all the evidence we need to grasp the situation, but looking reality in the face can be incredibly difficult and painful. We don’t want to change our way of life. We don’t want to admit that we were wrong. We hope that somehow this is a fluke, that things will get better if we wait it out.
Had the Egyptians demanded action sooner, perhaps the crisis of the final plague, the death of the firstborn, could have been averted. We can learn from this story and choose to take a different path. Let us not wait until it’s too little, too late. We can choose to confront our reality head on and demand that our leaders take action. When our story is written, let us be the generation that spoke out and made all the difference.