The Moment Before the Moment
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman
“When was the last time you felt the power of God so strongly you floated upon the rising tide like Moses in his cradle?” (From the novel “Freddy and Fredericka” by Mark Helprin.)
There was a moment, just before the moment, when the tide of Jewish history finally surged. God commanded Moses, “‘Take the staff which turned into a serpent, and go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he goes out to the River. Station yourself before him on the Nile’s bank…and say thus to him: ‘With this staff, I shall strike the water of the Nile, and it shall turn to blood’” (Ex. 7.14-17).
That was the moment before the change. . . For after that morning, no longer would Israelite infants be cast into the River, no longer would the current wash away the blood of infanticide and cleanse the executioner’s hand in its muddy depths. Egypt would drink her sins, and drink more. “Ver trinken sie abends ver trinken sie nacht.”
(Paul Celan, Deathfugue)
The first plague of blood abated and the second plague of frog passed, but a stench of rotting fish and frog remained, the rancor of guilt settled on the land. (Ex. 7.21; 8.10) With the odor came the plagues of lice and flies, latching to the flesh of human and beast, like the mark of Cain: ‘this was the finger of God’, said Egypt’s magicians (Ex. 8.15). Soon came the pestilence and then the boils. ‘Moses drew a handful of soot out of the furnaces [of oppression]’—where Israel had long fired mortar and baked bricks—and cast it windward, whereupon the ashes fell upon all those who struck with the mallet and attacked with the whip (Ex. 9.8). Israel rose steadily, Egypt ebbed away.
But if we may return to that slice of frozen time before the commencement of judgment. . . . Moses stationed upon the River as his sister had once stationed herself upon the River. Miriam must have stood rigid with worry, while years later, Moses must have felt wonderment at his fate. Here, a certain royal princess cast forth her hand and rescued a slave-boy with her embrace. Could this ‘Pharaoh’, the ruler’s grandson, stretch forth his hand, to save his people, at the least?
In Pharaoh’s stubbornness, we forget that Moses’s heart could be no less stubborn. Five times he rebuffs God by the burning bush. He is hardly one to voice ready agreement. “I am stiff of tongue and stiff of speech,” he states, “I am a man of uncircumcised lips.” Moses needs signs and wonders: a miraculous staff. . . an unconsumed bush. He wants to know God’s name. Moses keeps insisting, “send another,” “who am I to take Israel out of Egypt?” Even in agreement, he sets out half-heartedly: Moses puts his family on a donkey, while he ambles afoot by their side (Ex. Chs. 3-4).
Pharaoh seems much the same. He wants to know the Lord’s name: “Who is this Hebrew God that I should listen to his voice?” (Ex 5.2). He is no less blunt: “Why should I send them forth?” Pharaoh asks for signs, but he is similarly unimpressed by wonders (7:9-13). After each of the first five plagues, we are told that Pharaoh “stiffened his heart.” Even when he relents in the aftermath of disaster, we know his acquiescence is less than whole-hearted.
It is of interest that Moses’ resistance finally wanes while en-route to Egypt. Along the way, a mysterious divine threat “seeks to kill him.” Just who exactly or why, the Torah does not say. But disaster is averted only when Tziporah, Moses’ quick-thinking wife, circumcises their firstborn son. “Tell Pharaoh Israel is my firstborn,” God instructs Moses before he sets out (4.22). It is as if God’s concern for a firstborn son must be mirrored by Moses’ anxiety for losing a child. “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and no longer be stubborn” (Deut 10.16). It is sympathy that loosens a stiff upper lip and warms a frigid heart. And though, after the Plague of the Firstborn, Pharaoh and Egypt set Israel free; it is a broken will, not a broken heart, which cause the floodgates to open.
To sound a final note, there is an aspect of the plagues that is often neglected. With remarkable consistency, almost every plague is preceded by an invitation. “Go to Pharaoh.” “Stand before Pharaoh.” “Come before Pharaoh,” as this week’s portion begins. The invitation seems trivial compared to the plagues that follow. But the anticipation of what is to come is no less divine than the miracle itself. To end oppression one must first learn to personalize its horror, as Moses does on his journey back to Egypt, a lesson Pharaoh refuses to learn. To seek redemption, there must be first an inkling of what it means to be free. The eating of the Paschal Lamb, the Sparing of the Hebrew Firstborn, these things precede the Splitting of the Sea and the Resurrection of a People. It is always the moment before, the moment where we find God speaking to Moses and beckoning to us.
We know Pharaoh’s daughter stretched forth her hand, but not before God lifted the tide.