One Minute Torah: Bo 5779

When biologist Paul Ehrlich began his search for the first antibiotics, he referred to the hopeful drugs as “magic bullets”.

At this time in 5778 (end of 2017), I was taking a break from writing. So I went back two years, to 5777, to see if I wanted to reprint that year’s One Minute Torah for Parshat Bo. That year, late 2016, I wrote a political commentary, and I remember clearly how immediate and urgent it felt when I wrote it. I was dismayed to read it now, two years later, and find that the same message is no less immediate and no less urgent. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Change takes time, but we can turn this around.

When biologist Paul Ehrlich began his search for the first antibiotics, he referred to the hopeful drugs as “magic bullets”. The ability of a chemical to enter the body and target foreign cells, while leaving the person’s own cells untouched, is like magic. To understand this, think about the challenges in treating cancers or autoimmune diseases. These diseases result from a person’s own cells turning rogue, so there’s no easy way to target disease cells without hurting healthy ones. That’s why chemotherapy takes such a toll on the patient.

In the ancient rabbinic imagination, the first plagues brought on Egypt were magic bullets. During the plague of blood, for example, the rabbis imagined that if an Egyptian and a Jew drew from the same barrel, one would find himself with a cup of blood and the other with a cup of water. But in the final, most devastating release of divine anger, the biblical tale leaves no space for such rabbinic flights of fancy. The angel of death appears, and he does not see political boundaries. To protect their first born, the Israelites must create a physical sign to ward off death: the blood on the doorposts. Those Israelites who did not physically protect themselves were as vulnerable as any Egyptian.

If God’s own angel cannot see political boundaries, all the more so the demons inside of us. Emotions are contagious, and right now anger is on the loose. Hateful words and acts are flying, from the right and from the left.

There is no magic bullet that can eliminate another group’s anger, while our own anger blooms. When one group drinks blood, we all do. So we must speak our truths clear as water, without hate. We must use words that we would be willing to drink ourselves, if the cup were served from the other side. We must call back the demons of anger, hate and fear, and replace them with honesty, hope, humility and respect.