Followers of the Passover story may rightly wonder what’s so terrible about a plague of frogs. Was God really showing His power to the Egyptians by sending an army of amphibians against them? Would the nation that eventually produced Cleopatra, who purportedly killed herself by grabbing a poisonous snake, really have cared?
But the true plague of the frogs was how their incessant din robbed the Egyptians of all peace. We in the modern world have a unique understanding of the utter agony of a world that is never silent.
When the United States invaded Panama in 1989 to oust General Manuel Noriega, he took refuge in the Vatican embassy. The US Army brought in huge loudspeakers and blasted AC/DC’s song “Highway to Hell” at the embassy to drive him out of his refuge, a tactic that was also employed by the FBI at Waco, Texas.
Forty years ago John Lennon made the observation that when he grew up what was always heard in the background at home was the soothing crackling of a fire, which was replaced by the incessant noise of televisions.
That noise has actually gotten so much closer today, with ear buds that pump music directly into our eardrums. The net result is that we are rarely ever afforded any peace.
Even today harsh interrogations methods involve keeping people up for days by constantly blasting music at them, which drives them to the brink of insanity. Many argue that this is a form of torture.
The inability to ever shut out noise is a plague. But beyond the pain caused by the utter lack of peace there is the further consideration of the drowning out of the inner voice of conscience.
Each of us is immersed in a culture that throws various voices at us. Hollywood and the fashion industry hit us with the aesthetic voice, telling us that what matters most is beauty. Best to spend our time in front of a mirror and at a gym. Wall Street and Madison Avenue hit us with the monetary voice, which tells us that the most important thing in life is money and being able to afford the material objects that will bring us pleasure. Washington and politics hit us with the power voice, which tells us that the most significant thing in life is acquiring dominion over others. And the NFL and NBA hit us with the physical voice, which whispers that life has meaning through great athleticism, that we should be spending our time on the sports fields.
But beneath all these noises which are so central to the fabric of modern life and its aspirations is the inner voice of conscience, which whispers to us that we are born for lives of compassion and goodness. It’s nice to be pretty, but it’s even nicer to be nice. It’s wondrous to be sporty and adventurous, but even more spectacular is to teach our child how to throw a spiral and catch a ball. Through doing so we grant our children a feeling of significance. It’s a blessing to be wealthy, but even more important is to live lives of charity and humility where we make others feel that they matter too.
There is no human being born without that voice, though it can be drowned out to an extent by all the other voices that surround us.
The Egyptians, like all human beings, had an innate sense of morality and fair play. So how could they have enslaved a helpless people? Because the soul’s voice of fraternity and brotherhood was drown out by Pharaoh’s voice of dominion and power. As the Bible related, “Look, he said to his people, the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
The Egyptians allowed the foreign voice of the will to power to override the voice of sensitivity of compassion. In this sense, the racket of the frogs plague was an external manifestation of what had already occurred to the Egyptians internally. The Egyptians could no longer hear the inner song of their own souls. They could only hear the clamor of the artificial, external voice that slowly erodes our spiritual peace.
I once counseled a family that was being ripped apart by a teenage girl who irrationally hated her stepfather. While her mother, after being alone for some years, had found companionship and love with her new husband, she felt torn between her roles as mother and wife. I stayed with the family for a day and saw that while the mother prepared dinner and set the table, the girl sat on a couch with her iPod ear buds in her ears and painted her toenails. I asked to speak to her.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a fashion designer,” she answered.
“That’s not what I asked. I asked you what you want to be, and you answered about what you want to do.”
“What are the choices as to what I want to be?” she inquired.
“Only two,” I said. “You can either be a good person, or a selfish one.”
“I want to be a good person,” she said.
“Then how is it,” I asked, “that I just watched you turn your mother into your maid?”
She thought about the question and said she didn’t know.
“I’ll tell you,” I said. “Each of us is born with an inner voice that tell us to be a good daughter. To open our hearts to other people’s needs and wants. Your mother wants to be a loving parent, but she is also a woman and does not wish to be alone. You love you Mom and your heart tells you to be there for her, offer her comfort for the pain she’s endured, and generally make her life easier. But there is so much foreign noise in your life that you have no peace with which to hear your true voice. Turn off the music. Listen to your mother when she asks you to help around the house, and listen to her silent plea to support her in her new relationship.”
It’s amazing how when all the croaking is silenced, we begin to hear an old, familiar tune: the melodious song of our own souls.The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. He is currently writing Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.