by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
When I was a child I lived in an apartment on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. I was part of a semi-feral bevy of beach-rat kids. We were mostly boys, all about the same age, and pretty scrappy. All but one of our families were working class or poor.
The Warshaws were the lone exception. Their house had a dining room! And they drank Martinelli’s Apple Juice that came in bottles shaped like real apples! And they had two parents! And those parents did amazing things like go to work, and plant a garden, and occasionally they even went out together!! They were a shining example of what a family home could be, with one exception: the awful teenage babysitter, Roxanne. Somehow, all the kids in the neighborhood decided that she was our personal tormentor, a demon, the embodiment of awful. In retrospect it has occurred to me that poor old Roxanne found herself tending not only the Warshaw kids but me, and a handful of other waifs, which would make anybody irritable. But that was lost to our unformed minds. We were convinced that Roxanne was a raven haired, 16-year-old ogre.
When I was around eight, Roxanne started playing volleyball on the beach. One afternoon I saw a group of my friends crawling around in the sand of the volleyball court. I went to see what was going on. “We’re going to get Roxanne,” said one of my cronies. They were booby-trapping the court by digging a shallow pit, putting a glass bottle in the bottom and then smashing it with another bottle. Then they covered the resulting jagged shards with a thin layer of sand, and carefully moved on to the next unadulterated spot. Just after I arrived a kid cut his finger and went home. Shortly thereafter a posse of parents showed up, exasperated, furious, and the next few hours were spent gingerly sifting sand with colanders and kitchen strainers until the court was safe again. I’ll never forget that afternoon.
When I think back on that episode I am overwhelmed by two things: 1) I wasn’t the mastermind. Whew! 2) I could have been. Shudder.
This week’s parasha, Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16) is horribly familiar. God’s absolute worst qualities are on full display. Moses is back in Egypt to pressure Pharaoh into freeing all of the Israelite slaves. Naturally Pharaoh is remiss, so God intervenes. But instead of imbuing Moses with brilliance, or the power of persuasion; or melting Pharaoh’s heart with compassion or righteousness, God decides to go rogue. God defies Itself by overturning the laws of nature, and all for show.
“Was/Is/Will Be said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, because I have made dense his heart, and the heart of his servants, in order to make my presence undeniable by him; and to cause you to speak it into the ears of your sons and daughters, how I came into Egypt and through my works undid them, and you will know that I Am, Was and Will Be.’” Exodus 10:1-2
It is the crude street justice of childhood that God is showing us here, complete with devastating, irreparable, and wanton cruelty. I think it is significant that this story comes at the beginning of what will eventually become Judaism—it is the infancy of our religion, resplendent with an impulsive, blood-thirsty fascination with power. I get it. I’ve felt it. Most of us have. And while it isn’t pretty, it is hard to ever forget.
Perhaps, like that horrible afternoon of lawless revenge on the beach, this story is supposed to stick in our craw, make us writhe uncomfortably, and goad us into demanding that our grown-up selves be fully formed and mature, keeping our egos in check.
May our childhood ruthlessness develop into mature justice, may our unripe impulses develop into wisdom, and may our youthful fascination with spectacle mellow into deep grace with the beautiful, ordinary, miraculous moments of everyday redemption.