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Plagues, Compassion, and Responsibility

01/12/2024 03:33:43 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Va’Era, the telling of the first 7 of the plagues. Toward the beginning of the Parasha,  7:19 says: G‑d spoke to Moses: “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod, and stretch out your hand upon the waters of Egypt’”. A somewhat esoteric Midrash known as the Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer explains this verse: “The first three plagues—blood, frogs and lice—were brought on by Aaron. For G‑d said to Moses: The waters which protected you when you were cast into the River, and the soil which protected you when you buried the Egyptian—it is not fitting that they should be afflicted by your hand. Therefore, I shall afflict them through Aaron.”

          At first glance, this is a sweet concept, and it called to mind for me the verse in Deuteronomy on which most of our environmental Jewish laws are based: “Is the tree of the field a human, to escape from you into the captured city?” Although, to be fair, maybe I just have that verse on the brain as we gear up for Tu BiShevat. Yet, upon closer inspection or logical analysis, this reasoning for Aaron being the one to bring about the plagues on the Nile and the land doesn’t hold up. Yes, Moses has had a more personal relationship – that we know of – with the river and the soil, but presumably these things have also nourished and nurtured Aaron. He has lived into adulthood under terrible oppressive conditions, so he must have found access to clean drinking water, to produce and protein. Later in Exodus the Israelites specifically mention having had fish and leeks in the land of Egypt, so we surmise they were pescatarians, again nourished by the waters and soil of Egypt.

As for the later plagues that Moses does call down himself, it would seem he should have more emotional relationship to those affected by those plagues as well. He was raised by Egyptians, among Egyptians, as an Egyptian. He still would have died in the river, of starvation eventually even if the river itself kept him safe from drowning and crocodiles, if Pharaoh’s daughter hadn’t pulled him from his basket. So why doesn’t he feel badly, or why doesn’t God anticipate him feeling badly, about calling down disease and boils and fiery hail that destroy the Egyptians’ bodies, food supplies, and beautiful homes? Those seem like interactions more necessary for Aaron to step in and handle, as Aaron has no reason to sympathize with the Egyptians and their skins or bowels or cows or infrastructure.

But all of this did make me consider: what if we all behaved as though we had a special relationship with everything around us that helps keep us alive, and resisted the impulses which would cause them to be afflicted by our hands. What if we were kinder to the earth, what if we composted and recycled, and shopped local. What if we were kinder to each other, smiled at strangers, or better yet nodded politely and smized with our actual smiles hidden behind an N95 mask to protect the vulnerable among us during yet another covid surge. What if we gave tzedakah regularly and joyfully, and helped out a friend without having to be asked. Simply put, what if we really acted the way we plan on acting. I know everyone here strives to be a good person, a person who upholds ethical mitzvot and the values of Tikkun Olam, Chesed, Tzedek, and Ba’al Tashchit.  And I know that everyone here, myself included, falls short of our best. It is exhausting trying to make considerate choices all the time. Sometimes it feels easier to curl in on ourselves.

I don’t necessarily think that’s what Moses did when he started to be the bringer of bad news for Pharaoh and his court after the first three plagues. He had to step up and do what had to be done to free his people. Revolution is messy sometimes. And God orchestrated a lot of the whole situation beyond Moses’s control, too, so it’s not really Moses’s fault how messy things got. But to go back and hold the midrash on the first three plagues in a positive light – that Moses could not be the one to turn the water to blood because the River Nile protected his baby basket, that he could not be the one to call up the lice and the frogs to devour the land of Egypt because the soil kept his secret when he buried the Egyptian taskmaster – we can try to repeat that sentiment in our time.

          May we acknowledge gratefully all that which comes together to sustain us – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the shelter that protects us, and the company we keep. May we strive to protect each and every one of those people, places, and things, working toward ever greater sustainability and a culture of care. And at the very least, may we do no harm. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784