Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
We concluded our rapid-paced run through the book of Revelation this past Wednesday evening. One of the facts we discovered was that the writer of Revelation relied very heavily on passages from Hebrew scripture to develop a number of his ideas and images.
At one point in Revelation, God is judging earthlings, and God sends plagues on the earth. Everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic, of course, so we do not think that God ever has or ever would literally send plagues to harm people and/or the earth itself so something symbolic is being suggested. Even so, many of those plagues parallel the plagues in the book of Exodus that were said to have been sent on Egypt by God because the Pharaoh wasn’t willing to release the Hebrews whom he had enslaved. Even when God told him, through Moses and Aaron, to let God’s people, the ancient Hebrews, go, he said, “No.”
Pharaoh had steadfastly refused to liberate his hardworking slaves so there were plagues sent to sort of help Pharaoh change his mind. He and his brother- and sister-Egyptians would suffer greatly because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness.
I myself would read Genesis not quite as symbolically as I read Revelation, but close. No way do I think that God really sent horrible plagues on people who were doing nothing more than their sovereign required of them--keeping the Hebrews enslaved. Anyway, this is how the story was being told at the time it came to be written down and saved for posterity.
God sent Moses and Moses’ brother, Aaron, to the Pharaoh with the message that he should let God’s people go; that is, he should free them from slavery. The first thing Pharaoh needs to work out for them on their way to freedom is to let them go on a three-days’ journey so that they can worship their God as they believed they were supposed to. Would they come back after that and be good little Hebrews? Well, uh, you figure it out!
...Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “This is what Yahweh, God of Israel, says, `Let my people go, so that they can hold a feast in my honor in the desert.’”
“Who is Yahweh,” Pharaoh replied, “for me to obey what he says and let Israel go? I know nothing of Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.”
“The God of the Hebrews has encountered us,” they replied. “Give us leave to make a three-days’ journey into the desert and sacrifice to Yahweh our God, or he will strike us with a plague or with the sword.”
The king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, what do you mean by distracting the people from their work? Get back to your forced labor.” And Pharaoh said, “Now that the people have grown to such numbers in the country, what do you mean by interrupting their forced labor?”
That very day, Pharaoh gave the order to the people’s taskmasters and their scribes, “Do not go on providing the people with straw for brick-making as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you will exact the same quantity of bricks from them as before, not reducing it at all, since they are lazy, and that is why their cry is, `Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Give these people more work to do, and see they do it instead of listening to lying speeches” (Exod 5:1-9 New Jerusalem Bible).
OK! So much for God’s position and the Pharaoh’s position. Yahweh God said, “Let the Hebrews go free; to begin with, they need to make sacrifices to me; and then there’s the whole matter of general freedom.”
Pharaoh responded to Moses and Aaron with a message for their God who had sent them to him, “No way. They aren’t going free, and, in fact, for even pausing long enough from their work to ponder freedom we’re really going to make it tough on them. We’ve been supplying their materials for them so they can make bricks; well, now we’re going to require them to produce as many bricks as before, but in addition they will have to gather their own materials.” This Pharaoh was a nasty pharaoh.
What happens is that this horrible cycle ensues. Moses and Aaron tell the Pharaoh that God has demanded the release of the Hebrews, and Pharaoh says, “Nope.” Then, as a judgment on him and his people, though they had no choice but to comply with the Pharaoh’s demands, a plague hits them. There were ten rounds of this nonsense before Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go, and even after letting them go, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his military out to find them and bring them back.
The first plague on Pharaoh was the turning of all their drinking water, all their useable water, into blood. Wouldn’t that have done the trick?
The bloody water didn’t do the trick so after the next, “No,” from Pharaoh, the God of the book of Exodus sent frogs that were all over the people, in their homes, in their beds, everywhere.
You’d think the frogs would do the trick, but no. Next came a plague of gnats or lice; it’s hard to tell which it actually was, but either would have been horrible--gnat or lice infestation, all over your body, in your hair, in your face; and you not able to do a thing about it.
Next came swarms upon swarms of flies.
Then there was the plague that caused the livestock to be diseased. Poor animals!
What in the world is going on in Pharaoh’s mind? Was he really this stupid, or was he just stubborn? Who knows. Maybe a combination of the two.
The sixth of the ten plagues resulted in humans and animals being afflicted with boils all over their bodies.
Plague number seven: relentless thunder and hail the size of camel hoofs. Pharaoh’s stubbornness persisted.
Plague number eight: swarms of locusts. These locusts covered all the vegetation that hadn’t already been destroyed by the hail, and it was suddenly gone. Pharaoh was unmoved! “Let my people go, Pharaoh!” He still said, “No! Never!”
Plague number nine: darkness. Deep, pitch black darkness engulfed the Egyptians for three solid days. Sunrise was just as dark as midnight. No luminaries. Only darkness.
Finally, the tenth plague. Horrors! The writer of Exodus tells us that God ordered the firstborn of every Egyptian--from the most prominent to the servants, and this didn’t include the Hebrews--and every animal in the land to be stricken dead.
There have been numerous explanations of and responses to the idea that God brought such horrors on Egypt and the Egyptians just to punish stubborn Pharaoh. To make matters worse the Bible tells the story in such a way as to have the God of Exodus taking responsibility not only for the plagues, but also for keeping Pharaoh stubborn.
A leading British scientist, Professor Roger Wotton, who is a biologist at University College in London, proposed as recently as this past December that the plagues might have happened, but, if so, they were not acts of God; rather they were a series of natural disasters that demoralized the Egyptians, causing them to say that the God of the Hebrews was the winner.
Wotton believes that the crises occurred, but that they have been “embellished, ordered and described through the lens of religious mythology.” More of Professor Wotton’s words:
The “rivers of blood” could have been caused by heavy rainfall on baked soil, leading to sediment-rich water flowing into the Nile from tributaries where the underlying soil and rocks are red. Egyptians often spoke of the “red lands” surrounding the fertile, “black lands” they occupied. The plague of frogs could have been migrating frogs, or the sudden appearance of the froglike Spadefoot toads from hiding places in damp undersoil after a sudden rainfall.Similarly, the plague of lice could have been merely the sudden hatching of lice throughout Egypt after rain that followed unusually hot and dry weather. The description of swarms of flies match the behavior of dancing midges, which can sometimes be so dense that livestock have to be taken indoors to avoid asphyxiation, he says. Again, unusual weather conditions could have led them to the Nile.
Wotton dodges the issue of whether God was behind all of this and especially the death of first-born children and animals. He’s a biologist! He’s allowed to duck out on that one!
Only when the first-born children and animals lay dead did Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. The mere thought rips out our hearts even if the tale is fictional.
My rabbi is Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, Senior Rabbi at Temple Sinai in New Orleans. Everyone should have a rabbi, and to those others who do, I say, “Mine is the best.”
Ed must one of the few rabbis who, along with his graduate rabbinical training, holds a degree from a Christian seminary. Yes, that’s what I said. Ed earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from a Methodist seminary, the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.
For a couple of years, Ed was one of three panelists who regularly joined host, Chris Jansing, on an MSNBC program called “The Ethical Edge.” Panelists discussed and sometimes debated moral issues at the heart of key news stories. Televised nationally, the program attracted wide positive attention.
I first knew Ed as a preacher who submitted an occasional sermon to my journal, Pulpit Digest. Eventually, he became the only rabbi, as far as I recall, who ever served on the board of advisory editors.
Then, through a wonderful turn of events, we both found ourselves serving congregations in New Orleans. He got there before I did, and he’s still there. He may always be there since his congregation a few years ago offered him a lifetime contract. Think for a moment about how much a clergyperson must be loved and esteemed in order to be offered a LIFE contract! Some day I hope you’ll meet Ed, and I promise that in a very short time, say a weekend, you’ll know why Temple Sinai wants to hang onto him until he’s 100 or so and has to move to a home for elderly rabbis called something like Shalom Home.
Ed is a dear friend and, honestly, more than a friend. He really is my trusted confidant, one of the very, very, very few people in all the world with whom I can and do discuss anything. I trust his judgment and insights about relationships. I trust his views and understandings of leadership and congregational issues. I trust his perspectives on preaching. Beyond the gift of his treasured friendship, I have learned so much from Ed across the years.
The last time I saw him was February of ‘07 in New York where I was on my birthday/theatre/study pilgrimage. He and his wife were in New York for a couple of months on sabbatical (HINT!!!), and he took me out for Sunday brunch to celebrate my birthday. We had a great time catching up face to face, and before we left he embarrassed the pee-wadding out me by having the wait staff and our fellow brunchers join him in singing “Happy Birthday” to the immanent preacher, he told anyone listening, Dr. David Farmer. I waited a whole year before going back to New York, hoping that anyone in the restaurant that day would have completely forgotten me. Truthfully, of course, I was deeply flattered and touched and entertained by the event--though my face was red for the rest of the day.
Ed’s Temple and my Church, the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, were very close in proximity in Uptown New Orleans. During the five-year overlap of our ministries in that remarkable city, the congregations became closer in terms of knowledge of and involvement with each other; this relationship between the two congregations continues to this day.
Ed and I were able to get an organization going that we called the Uptown Interfaith Association. This group brought congregations of many faiths together for an annual joint Thanksgiving service and for other events of interest to the whole of New Orleans’s Uptown faith communities. It was thrilling, and the success of the effort rested on Ed’s magnanimity and forward-thinking ways.
I was a newbie, after all. St. Charles was my first full-time pastorate after I gave up being a professor for a while in response to the fundamentalist takeover of all Southern Baptist seminaries and mission agencies. I was heavily grieved when I went to New Orleans because of the theft of doctrinal diversity and progressive thought that had been a strong part of why I loved the Southern Baptists of my early life. In any case, Ed was something of a mentor to me.
Some of you know the absolutely true story of the Jewish/Christian wedding at which Ed and I co-officiated. The Jewish bride and the Protestant groom wanted to be married in the beautiful City Park, AT the Carousel, they said. Prepositions are so very important. When Ed and I arrived at the Park, we walked to the Carousel and found the set up for ceremony, not AT the Carousel, but ON the Carousel. We weren’t on the part that revolved, but just off of that.
As we took our places side by side, we heard a swooshing movement behind us. We were looking around to see what was happening to us when music started. It was Elvis sining, “We’re Goin’ to the Chapel, and We’re Gonna Get Married.” Before we were quite sure what was going on, we saw a sight too shocking for two clergypersons all robed up for a formal wedding. Here came the bride on one of the Merry-go-round horses with her father on the one behind here. There they were, going round and round, up and down, as Elvis sang his heart out on the Park’s loud speaker.
When the bride finally dismounted her steed, Ed and I were even more stunned. The father of the bride helped his daughter to her place in front of Ed and me. She was wearing a tight-fitting sequined dress, and there was a three-feet long plume growing out of her hair. She looked like a flapper, not a bride; and she was nearly beyond tipsy. Only in New Orleans, baby.
Ed’s a lot nicer than I am and much more adaptable. He just went right along in the spirit of the event as warm and cordial as ever. I was in shock. I could barely say my part of the service. I just kept staring at this couple in front of me. Ed had to elbow me a few times as we stood there to keep me from staring and forgetting my place.
As soon as it was over, I RAN to my car. I wanted to get out of that loony place as fast as I could. As I was getting in the car, I noticed that Ed was running after me. He told whoever was paying us that they had to pay on the spot, that sending a check wouldn’t work. Somehow the money was pooled together, and Ed handed me a hundred bucks saying, “You really earned this!”
Ed and I fell into the habit of a pulpit exchange. At least once a year, he invited me to preach at his Temple on Friday evening, and I’d invite him the following Sunday to preach at my Church. How wonderful it was to preach in a synagogue used to great preaching, and how wonderful it was to see Ed work his pulpit magic in the St Charles pulpit.
Ed is a really witty guy, and he tells jokes well. I vividly remember his first sermon at St. Charles in one of these pulpit exchanges. He told a joke about a physician, a world renowned ophthalmologist, whose treatment and care led to the restoration of someone’s sight. The patient was so grateful that she sent the doctor a very large but beautifully carved or sculpted human eye. The doctor, if I recall correctly, was most appreciative but remarked to someone, “I’m glad I’m not a proctologist!” Five minutes lapsed as we waited for my congregation to stop laughing.
The first time we did the pulpit exchange, Rabbi Cohn proposed that we conclude the services, first at his Temple and then at my Church, with the stirring benediction from the book of Numbers, chapter 6. He would speak a phrase in Hebrew, and I would follow with its English equivalent. It was beautiful like that, and closing our services, he at my place or I at his, with benedictions in just that manner became our hallmark.
The Lord bless you and keep you; God make God’s face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; God lift up God’s countenance upon you, and give you peace.
There was a Negro spiritual based on the biblical tale I related at the beginning of the sermon.
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.
Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said,
Let my people go,
If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead,
Let my people go.
No more shall they in bondage toil,
Let my people go,
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses!
Way down in Egypt’s land.
Tell ol’ Pharaoh: Let my people go!
About this time of year, five years ago, Rabbi Cohn preached a Passover sermon at Temple Sinai in New Orleans entitled, “Let My People Grow.” Early in that moving and challenging sermon, Ed told his hearers:
A couple of nights ago, the Jewish people worldwide sat down to the Seder, re-enacting the events of some 3,300 years ago. From oldest to youngest, we gathered at table-side to recall those resounding words of Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go that they may serve their God.” The Passover message would remind us that freedom is never won by the easy road of mere escape. But, rather, freedom implies an active and combative struggle both for personal growth and for the realization of spiritual ideals. Perhaps, then, it is only after we have found ourselves that, like Moses, we can cease to be strangers in a strange land. Freedom from enslavement must, of necessity, begin deep down within each human breast.
“Freedom from enslavement must, of necessity, begin deep down within each human breast.”
Ed listed four sources of enslavement. First, he pointed that, sometimes, we are enslaved by circumstances. Second, many of us become enslaved by routine. Third, more than a few of us are enslaved by things. Fourth and finally, he said, that many of us are enslaved by ourselves.
Those who are enslaved by circumstances may have been confronted with the reality of the perfect job that finally falls through, or they may have or have had a poor home or family life. Ed also lists “an embittering loss, a personal betrayal, a disabling illness, a raw deal in life.”
One of the ways we become enslaved to routine is when we put off the full enjoyment of life until some other point out there somewhere when we have more time or more money or more friends. You name it. In the mean time, we keep our regular routines going, continuing to put off fully embracing life.
Being enslaved by things. That one is so obvious it doesn’t need much comment, does it? In Rabbi Cohn’s words: “Some of us are enslaved by things and their acquisition. We never have enough of riches or material treasure.”
He went on to preach about the fact that sometimes, in our weak times, we enslave ourselves. That hits frighteningly close to home, doesn’t it?
Especially in our context of political freedom, we have so much literal freedom that we many of us don’t mind losing a little, wasting a little. At best, most of us take our freedom for granted; we will be reminded of that again in November when we see how many of us didn’t bother to vote for President of the United States. Unimaginable. Unthinkable. But commonplace.
Carelessness with freedom leads some of us to enslave ourselves. Ed, as I’ve said, thinks this happens in our moments of weakness.
He also makes the memorable comment, as he gets ready to close his sermon, that one is not free simply because she or he is no longer a slave. The ancient Hebrews would repeatedly prove this to be true.
Out wandering in the desert in search of their so-called “Promised Land,” many of them began to whine and complain. They were critical of Moses for having encouraged them to follow him out of routine in which they were comfortable. Even though that Pharaoh had been growing increasingly strict with them, they had food to eat and shelter over their heads. “By the way, did anyone notice,” they gossiped, that the Pharaoh became more strict with us AFTER Moses and Aaron started bugging him? That mess back in Egypt and this mess we’re in here and now are both the faults of Moses. Why didn’t he just leave well enough alone?”
How do we enslave ourselves? Let us count the ways!
"The enslaving of the other," said an existentialist philosopher by the name of Nikolai Berdyaev, "is also the enslaving of the self." This is quite evident when we ponder it just for a moment.
Addictions obviously enslave us--both those addictions that others can see in us when they observe us and those addictions that are known only to us in the privacy of our minds and imaginations. I am not, and I wouldn’t for a second, put down an addict--regardless of her or his addiction. We know now that addictive behavior patterns can be outgrowths of illness. At the same time, I have to say that, in honesty, most of us know when we are developing addictive connections to certain substances or behaviors, and if we won’t pull ourselves away from the circumstances in which those behaviors tend to occur then we are inviting the addiction.
Here’s something else. Self-pity can become the basis for self-enslavement. I think there are some bad turns life forces on us from time to time, and we’re due some self-pity when those happen. There are those, though, who make self-pity a way of life. It’s tragic in a way, but also it’s something we don’t want to hear all the time unless, of course, someone is being honest about how painful some experience was and continues to be. In other words, I think we’re all entitled to a measure of self-pity when life has dealt us a bad hand; it doesn’t matter what others may think of us or how we’re coping. If we are going to move on, however, we can’t let the self-pity overtake us. Some of you have had such sad and tragic times in your life that if you’d let self-pity rule you, you’d never have gotten out of bed.
Tennessee Williams’s play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” was made into a movie in the very late 1950’s starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Mercedes McCambridge. It’s a very powerful film, disturbing in ways, just as Williams wanted it, and there are a few themes to keep up with--not just one. Ms. Hepburn played the mother whose son had tragically died “suddenly last summer.” She was trapped in her self-pity; she had enslaved herself in that self-pity. In her case, this led to a very destructive set of behaviors affecting herself and others.
Karen Roekard speaks powerfully to my ear:
The Hebrew name for the ancient Egypt was Mitzrayim; the word Mitzrayim comes from a root word with a meaning, “the narrow place.” I interpreted this to mean that in this [present] generation...from within my evolving consciousness, it is my gift to be able to understand Mitzrayim and the sensibility of slavery by looking into the “right now” of my life and seeing, feeling, and knowing the ways in which I enslave myself, the ways in which I keep myself in narrow places.
This is brilliantly insightful.
The antidote to self-enslavement is personal growth as Ed makes clear early on in his sermon. The challenge for us, then, is to risk personal growth--an uneasy change of how and when and where we do what we do in our lives. “Let my people go,” God says. And God adds, “Let my people GROW.”