Since the start of the holiday season I have been working on negotiating the rates on the various services I use (i.e. phone, utilities, satellite radio, etc.). I do this on a regular basis with temple vendors too, but it’s a very different story when it comes to the vendors I use at home. For starters (and full disclosure here), Krystal manages everything at home, including the finances. I know it’s kind of funny to think that I can manage a two and a half million dollar budget for the temple, but the moment I’m asked to do even the most mundane task at home, I become discombobulated. Second, I become irate when dealing with these companies over the phone. Usually I pace like a caged beast waiting for the innocent spectator to get just close enough, so I can snatch them up and tear them to shreds, but these past two weeks, I had two completely opposite experiences.
The first was surprisingly pleasant. When I contacted my service provider, they promptly connected me to customer service, I was able to express my desire to lower my monthly bill, and they within minutes were able to reduce the monthly invoice by 45%. No shouting occurred, no debate was had, and I even left the call thinking I might be able to overlook the two years of subpar service if they acted this way. The second experience almost led me to drive into traffic head on. It took four separate calls to actually connect to a service representative, and when I finally got a human on the other end, they informed me they were upgrading their system and I needed to call them back in twenty minutes. I called them back, already upset, and when I explained I wanted to reduce my monthly bill or maybe even cancel, they said it was either continue at the full price or cancel with an exorbitantly large fee! The person on the other side of the call was clearly reading everything off her computer monitor. There were extremely awkward periods of time where she was typing in what I had said and waiting for the canned response provided by her machine. They would not budge on the price. I continued to nudge and received canned answers until I finally convinced them to give me a discount on the bill for the remaining eight months of the contract. Here’s where I think it gets really interesting. The discount won’t take effect for at least two months and the contract ends in eight months, so I’d only be getting the discount for six months. We argued for twenty minutes about the discount and the time frame it would be in place, and the service person even threatened to rescind the offered discount. I finally gave in, took what they were offering and got off the most aggravating call I’d been on in years. Calls like this make having life insurance worthwhile!
Let’s now switch to something far less aggravating and more insightful, Torah. In this week’s parasha, Bo, we have reached the final three plagues brought upon the Egyptian overlords. The land of Egypt is sacked by locusts and darkness, yet Pharaoh does not negotiate with Moses. The plague of death to the first born is to come next. God commands the first mitzvah to be given to the people of Israel: to establish a calendar based on the monthly rebirth of the moon. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a “Passover offering” to God: a lamb is to be slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled on the doorposts of every Israelite home, so that God should pass over these homes when he comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn. The roasted meat of the offering is to be eaten that night together with matzah and bitter herbs.
The death of the firstborn finally breaks Pharaoh’s resistance, and he literally drives the children of Israel from his land. So hastily do they depart that there is no time for their dough to rise, and the only provisions they take along are unleavened. Before they go, they ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver, and garments, fulfilling the promise made to Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth. The children of Israel are commanded to consecrate all firstborn, and to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leaven from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children.
I kind of liken my second interaction with customer service to the dialogue between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh. Convincing Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery was a task that demanded patience, strength, faith, a good dose of psychology and miracles. At first, Moses and Aaron’s pleas were not able to soften Pharaoh’s “hardened heart.” Although Pharaoh would frequently appear to be giving in, he would always backtrack later. He made commitments and promises, then broke them soon after, true to the persona of the classic abuser. But the brothers persevered. Finally, God asserted his full strength with the final plagues, empowering the Jewish people for the ultimate getaway. They fled from Egypt, sheltered under God’s protection in the wilderness.
Most of us can relate to this story. While we are not literally slaves, we may at times have a self-defeating “slave mentality” to habits or circumstances. We may have felt helpless in a situation that seemed to have no way out. Sometimes we dealt with stubborn people who, while not quite as extreme in their behavior as Pharaoh, are unwilling to compromise or give in. On a global level, the world is facing bullies who terrorize others through violence. How can our parasha shed light on these challenges?
The turning point for the Jews came when Moses and Aaron stepped in. The oppression had to stop. Not another day would pass without taking action. With God’s power behind them, they implemented their strategy, step by step. By persisting through obstacles and opposition, they ultimately succeeded in freeing the Jews from slavery. In our own lives, there may or may not be such a dramatic turnabout. Change may come gradually, but the pattern is the same. We first must recognize the problem we are facing and commit to finding a solution. We must then make a corrective plan of action and follow through with determination. Sometimes our own emotional resources are not enough to pull us up. We might need to turn to someone, whether it’s a family member, a friend, a professional, or a spiritual leader, to advocate for us, to be our voice in negotiating with someone difficult. This is not weakness; it is a sign of strength to know when we need help. In our lives, we also need God’s help and protection to surmount difficulties. When we don’t feel strong enough on our own, we can draw on God’s infinite strength, through the power of prayer. In the parasha, the Jews needed Moses and Aaron to speak up on their behalf. Moses and Aaron were given their mission by God. They could not have succeeded without divine assistance. Like Moses and Aaron, each of us has a mission with a personal connection to the Almighty, which gives us the ability to accomplish what might at first seem impossible.