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Frogs and darkness the not-so-new normal

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I was about to switch off the radio after the early morning news bulletin when something the presenter said caught my attention. He was about to interview an expert on the energy crisis to explain why there hadn’t been load shedding in South Africa for close to 72 hours. Yes, I was hearing correctly: why there hadn’t been any outages over the period. I was riveted by the discussion, the various explanations, and the possible conspiracy theories around the availability – yes availability – of sufficient power for those couple of days.

It was absolutely surreal, borderline Kafkaesque. Is this what we’ve come to? Is the new normal to sit in the dark? If we get to an intersection and the traffic lights are working, we question why. And if it goes on for too long, we need expert advice on the radio to reassure us and explain!

There’s an urban myth about the frog in boiling water. Presumably, if you throw a frog into a pot of scalding water, it will immediately jump out. But if you put the amphibian in a saucepan of tepid water on the stove and heat it gradually by a degree or so a minute, the creature will remain in place, ribbitting the equivalent of “aah” as it enjoys the ever increasing temperatures, until it emits its final croak.

This is apparently untrue. Science tells us that a frog thrown in boiling water would get very badly hurt and possibly die immediately. If the water was heated gradually, the frog would attempt to get out as soon as the temperature was beyond comfort level. Nonetheless, the myth persists. Mainly because it makes for a wonderful metaphor, extensively used by the clergy, economists, and sociologists. Also, I hope, because nobody has tried the experiment at home. Never let the facts get in the way of a wonderful story!

Thus begins the history of the Jewish people as they first emerged into a nation back in ancient Egypt. At first, conditions were absolutely amazing. The Egyptians treated us with respect, as true VIP guests who had arrived courtesy of the viceroy of the time, Joseph. With time, gradually the situation deteriorated. Feeling threatened by the strangers, the host nation began to show open hostility and xenophobia. By the end of two centuries, we were slaves, fashioning bricks from raw materials to build structures for the Egyptians and being mercilessly beaten by cruel taskmasters when failing to achieve the expected quota.

When, finally, Moshe arrives with the news of impending redemption, he receives a cool reception. The divine message is clear: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people, ‘I am Hashem. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.’ But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they wouldn’t listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6). Had slavery in Egypt become the new normal?

The Midrash tells us that a fair proportion of the Israelites in Egypt openly declared their intention to remain behind when the Exodus occurred. They died under the cover of the Plague of Darkness (the original one), and were hastily buried by their brethren before the Egyptians could witness the indignity (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael).

Surreal? Kafkaesque?

Our current exile has lasted not a couple of centuries, but a couple of millennia. And the frog in the pot is calling out “aah”, enjoying the wonderful bath. There were bad times indeed. Persecutions and pogroms. Forced expulsions and conversions. Mass executions and final solutions. As recently as a couple of generations ago. But in 2023? A significant number of our people have opted to return to our homeland, where our language, faith, and culture prevail. Our communities around the world enjoy political stability and financial prosperity. We assist each other in hard times, and there are plentiful chesed (kindness) organisations to support and assist those who need it in every imaginable way. Exile hardly seems the right word to describe our current situation.

In this exile, it’s our value system that has become prisoner. Ideas held sacred from time immemorial are being challenged and upended. Nothing is holy any longer, nothing is absolute. Every opinion is valid, and we’re all free to define ourselves in any way we choose to identify. Our new “woke” society will cancel anyone who dares to call out that the emperor actually has no clothes. It happened fairly quickly, in our own generation, but slowly enough for the frog to get comfortable in the hot water.

In case we needed to be reminded that we’re definitely still in exile, we open our newspapers to read of teams being disinvited from rugby tours and of even more overt hostility towards our brethren in other parts of the world. In our holy land, the one country where it’s undoubtedly most difficult to perceive of exile, society is being torn asunder by political differences. Mashiach hasn’t quite arrived yet!

Along comes Pesach, and the wonderful seder night. An evening to return to our roots. Not just to tell an ancient story and to reminisce about our redemption long ago, it’s a night of discussion about how to integrate those age old and immortal values from 3 300 years ago today, in 2023. It’s about refusing the status quo as we reignite our longing for a final redemption.

Jump, frog, jump out, before it’s too late!

Wishing you chag Pesach kasher vesameach, and meaningful, life changing seders.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul, and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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