I was helping someone move into their new home this week. They pre-warned me that I would be walking into a mess. Lots of boxes, lots of chaos, piles of things waiting to be organized. I thought of my life and whether or not being in the midst of a mess bothers me. I decided…it depends.
I always have a mess in my car. I consider my car a big purse on wheels. If I were stranded somewhere for a while, I could exist on what is in my car – pillow, blanket, dental floss, lots of books and…yes…emergency popcorn. It is a purposeful mess, in that I know where everything is and why it’s there. To others, it’s messy, to me it’s organized chaos. If you move anything around in my car, I won’t understand where and why you put ‘that thing’ where you did, so I will now be confused. Once, years ago, I got into my car one morning only to find it had been broken into. Nothing was taken (I never leave valuables in my mess). How did I know it was broken into? The thieves left piles of things they had gone through searching for anything worthwhile. My stuff is never in piles – that’s how I knew. For neighbourhood statistics, I reported it to the police who kept asking if there was any damage to anything. I finally had to admit that the thieves left it neater than they found it. Not my best moment.
When we encounter a mess, it is our inclination to tidy it or find ‘method to the madness’. We don’t ever intend to create chaos. It’s actually really difficult to do.
Have you ever intentionally tried to make a mess? I don’t mean have you ever ended up with a mess, but have you ever tried to make a mess? Most often, a mess is the result of trying to do something else. It’s easy to make a mess when you try to cook something, or when you’re trying to fix something. I can’t actually think of a situation when the goal is to make a mess and nothing else. In fact, we usually ask people not to leave a mess behind them – our goal is anti-mess.
We come by this honestly, so much in Judaism is about ordering chaos. Whether it’s the beginning of Genesis, where God is ordering chaos, our prayer book, a Siddur (which translates as ‘Order’), or the Seder (‘the Order’) at Pesach, our model is to organize everything around us. Even our texts are formatted on each page so there is order to the commentaries. We are never presented with disarray.
So, if everything is about ordering chaos, we come to this week’s Torah reading, parshat Bo, we read about the plagues God brings to Egypt, and we have to ask…what’s going on? If the goal is to get us out of Egypt, surely God can do that in an instant without bothering anyone. Sitting on the wings of eagles comes to mind. In other words, why have plagues?
Maybe Egypt needs to be punished for what it did. Except, God never mentions punishing Egypt as a goal when he enlists Moses to lead. In fact, we are so bothered by the plagues that during the Seder we take wine out of our cups when we recite them because we are reducing our joy. We are troubled by those plagues enough that we have to ask: why have them?
If we go back to the job God describes to Moses, we notice that there are two parts to it. The first is the one we all know: get Israel out of Egypt. The second goal is the lesser known one: all of Egypt must know that God is God. Basically, change Egypt’s world view. Get Pharaoh to acknowledge that he, in fact, is not a deity and they’ve had it wrong all along. When Moses insists to God that he doesn’t want the job, I believe he’s rejecting the second goal. When you’re dealing with a powerful God, the first part of the task is easy. It’s when you’re dealing with people’s attitudes that the task becomes unimaginable. How can Moses possibly change Pharaoh’s mind?
And so God proceeds to undo creation in Egypt. Each plague will remove another element of the creation of the world, and Egypt will be plunged back into primordial chaos. For example, the first thing created in Genesis is light. It lasts for three days as a unique light of creation that the Sages describe as light that can be felt. Undoing this light results in the plague of darkness in Egypt. The darkness lasts for three days and is described as a darkness that is heavy upon the person. It can be felt.
But the most obvious example of God’s message is the last plague: the death of the first born. The opposite of God creating the first person. The undoing of life. God breathed life into Adam and God will pass through Egypt taking the breath out of every first born.
The message now becomes: only the God who created the universe would know how to undo it. God is deliberately putting chaos back into Egypt with the goal of having them realize God is the One who created it all. The plagues trouble us because they weren’t meant to speak to us and, in the end, they don’t.
Judaism is a model of order from chaos and organization from disarray, but not all of God’s messages are meant for us. The Torah always lets us know that God has relationships with all people and all beings. How humbling to realize that the redemption from Egypt, the pivotal moment in creating the Jewish people, is framed with unique and monumental events that were never meant to speak to us.