‘A Renewal of Public Conscience’

My friend Amalie said the other day that Barack Obama’s election has spurred her to re-engage¬†with the world once again — she’s reading the paper more closely, staying up on the news, paying attention to what’s going on. The experience was a bit jarring for her. It made her realize just how dis-engaged she’d become in the past eight years.

My guess, from anecdotal evidence, is that she’s far from alone.

Reading the Torah portion for this week — parsha Bo — I was struck by a thousands-year-old Biblical parallel for large-scale public re-engagement.

We are currently in the third parsha of Exodus, smack dab in the middle of the Passover story.¬†In a series of escalating confrontations, Moses tells Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free, so they can worship God in the desert. Pharaoh, as is well-known, declines again and again — despite ever-worsening plagues. Blood. Frogs. Vermin. Wild beasts. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Finally, after the tenth and last plague — death of every first-born child — Pharaoh relents: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31)

Next, though, comes a part of the story that I never knew before, growing up. On their way to freedom, a large portion of the Egyptian population (roughly one-third) gives the departing slaves “silver and gold, and clothing.” (Exodus 12:35)

Here’s the midrashic interpretation, from the Sages:

The silver and gold given (not lent) by the Egyptians constituted a protest against the policies of a royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience. Similar gifts were given to the Jews leaving Babylonia to return to Judea.

In helping the Jews attain their freedom, the ancient Egyptians were awakening, in a sense; shaking free, themselves, from their extended malaise.

Some 3,500 years later, perhaps we are, too.

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One Response to “‘A Renewal of Public Conscience’”

  1. Freddie says:

    Wake up!! You and future generations are becoming the slaves!! It is nice to have a dream. One you can make happen, but like most Americans we have had it easy and like it that way. Now, we have someone that will do it all for us. Pay for our houses, our cars, our medical expenses, child care and we don’t have to do anything, but support our elite lawmakers and their families in Washington for the rest of their lives. There is going to be a wider division between the haves and the have nots.

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