A Modern Noise That Robs Us of All Peace
Those reading the Passover story can rightly wonder why frogs were such a terrible plague. Was God really showing His power to the Egyptians by sending an army of amphibians to their land?
In reality, the true plague of the frogs was that the sound of their incessant ribbetting robbed the Egyptians of all peace. And we who inhabit 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’s embassy. The United States Army brought huge loudspeakers and blasted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” in order to drive him out of his refuge, a tactic that was also employed by the FBI at Waco.
Forty years ago, John Lennon made the observation that when he grew up, all he heard in the background of homes was the soothing crackle of a fire. By the time he was older, this had been replaced by the incessant noise of televisions that were always blaring in the background.
That noise is even worse today, with earbuds that pump music directly into our ears. The net result is that we are rarely ever afforded any peace.
Some harsh interrogation methods that we use against terrorists involve keeping them up for days by constantly blasting music, which can drive 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 — and it often leads to the drowning out of our inner voice of conscience.
Our culture throws various voices at us. Hollywood and the fashion industry hit us with the aesthetic voice, telling us that beauty matters most. 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 says that money and material wealth matter most. Washington and politicians 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’s meaning can be found through great athleticism.
But beneath all of these noises is our inner voice of conscience, which whispers to us that we were born for lives of compassion and goodness. It’s nice to be pretty. But it’s even nicer to be nice. It’s great to be athletic, but it’s even more spectacular to teach our child how to throw a spiral or catch a ball. It’s a blessing to be wealthy, but it’s even more important to live lives of charity and humility, where we make others feel that they matter too.
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 their voice of fraternity and brotherhood was drowned out by Pharaoh’s voice of dominion and power.
As the Bible relates, “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 their desire for power to override the voice of sensitivity and compassion. In this sense, the frogs-plague was an external manifestation of what had already occurred. 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. Her mother felt torn — wanting to be in love, but feeling an obligation to her daughter. I stayed with the family for a day, and saw that while the girl’s mother prepared dinner and set the table, the girl sat on a couch with her iPod, 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 about what I can be?” she asked.
“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 your Mom and your heart tells you to be there for her. 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 that when all the ribbetting is silenced, we begin to hear an old, familiar tune: the melodious song of our own souls.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” was called “the most famous Rabbi in America” by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.