One week ago today, far-right extremists brought mayhem and bloodshed to the halls of Congress. Some of my fellow Americans, human beings created b’tzelem elohim, had become convinced — contrary to any available facts or evidence — that the election results were fraudulent. They decided, egged on by the losing candidate, to take matters into their own hands. Footsoldiers for a dangerous grifter, they traveled to DC with guns and dreams and righteous indignation.
What unfolded that day got America’s attention in a way that previous outrages had not. Even as the then-candidate normalized making racist generalizations, assaulting women without compunction and ridiculing people with disabilities, he still got elected. Even as the now-president cozied up with hate groups, doubled down on the ugly racism that has always been an inherent part of American culture, mangled the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, and made a mockery of the office he held and the decorum it demands, a lot of folks didn’t see — perhaps, refused to see — the damage he was doing.
Something seemed to click last week, and many of the people and institutions that had stood by as our very democracy seemed to be decompensating before our eyes finally drew the line and began to abandon their support of him.
And I wondered, why did it take so long to see?
One insight comes in the psychodrama that is the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus). In this week’s parsha, Va’era, Gd begins to bring the plagues upon Egypt in order to secure the Israelites’ freedom. Even before the official plagues began, there was writing on the wall, an indication of the signs and wonders to come:
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת־מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין׃
And Moshe & Aharon came to Pharaoh and did just as Gd had commanded. Aharon cast down his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. (Exodus 7:10)
This warning shot serves only to get Pharaoh interested. He strengthens his resolve and waits to see what comes next. And after blood and frogs and lice, after beasts and disease — even when he seems to be coming around, each time Pharaoh hardens his position.
A few chapters in, Gd instructs Moshe to tell Pharaoh:
כִּי בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת אֲנִי שֹׁלֵחַ אֶת־כָּל־מַגֵּפֹתַי אֶל־לִבְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמֶּךָ בַּעֲבוּר תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ׃
This time, I am sending all my plagues — unto your very self, and unto your slaves, and unto your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.
Interestingly, this is the first use of the word מַגֵּפָה (plague) in the entire Torah. In other words, the plagues aren’t even called plagues until the seventh one. It can take a while to see what’s happening.
It feels to me that something similar is happening with current events: not that I am comparing the current president to Gd, as the one sending the plagues. (Quite the contrary!) Rather I am saying that it’s taken things getting this bad — sedition-bad — for the president’s allies to realize how bad it was getting. Today, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president a second time, with ten Republican lawmakers joining the vote to impeach. Institutions with which the president has done business are severing their ties with him. Social media sites are no longer permitting him to use their platforms to serve his incitements. It seems as though the person who once bragged he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight is finally facing some consequences for his treacherous actions.
But just as the seventh plague was not the last one, there is much that remains to do. The flames of white supremacy and extremism have been fanned into an open conflagration, and not just by our soon-to-be-ex-president. We have work to do as a nation to face the truth of our racist past and present.
For the Israelites, liberation turns out to be a long and agonizing process, replete with reversals and stubbornness and loss. It takes seemingly forever for Pharaoh to realize the game is up, and in the end he only realizes it at terrible cost to everyone.
Let us pray — and work — to find another way for ourselves.