Monday, January 18, 2010

"Plagues" or "Marvels"? / Parshat Bo

Last week’s parashah, Va’era, recounted the first seven plagues. This week’s parashah, Bo, recounts the last three: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. We refer to the Ten Plagues in our Haggadah as the Eser Makkot – the ten “strikes” or “plagues.” Torah confirms that they are nega “affliction” (11:1) but also employs other terms with far more positive connotation:
  • Nifla’ot “wonders” (Ex. 3:20)
  • Otot “signs” (Ex. 8:19 and 10:2)
  • Moftim “marvels” (Ex. 11:10)
There is a world of difference between a “plague” and a “marvel.” Certainly there is a difference in the eye of the beholder. For Israel Eser Makkot are wonders, signs, and marvels. For Egypt they are afflictions and plagues.

For the Torah, every event in the lives of God’s people is pregnant with meaning and purpose, and God is behind each event. Hence plagues against Egypt are “signs” of God’s power and sovereignty in the universe, “wonders” in the eyes of Israel.

There is a danger to this perspective. If each significant event in the vicissitudes of history is orchestrated by God, then everyone is continually being rewarded or punished by God, and we need only look at the outcome to confidently (and arrogantly) pass judgment on the players, as Pat Robertson’s recent repugnant remarks concerning the devastating earthquake in Haiti remind us.

Our Rabbis recognized this danger and attempted to ameliorate its effect by withdrawing (in a sense) from the march of history and declaring a “time out” until the arrival of the messiah. But this is a not a solution for me. The solution for me lies in a different conception of God and God’s interaction with the universe. God is the divine spark that operates through us, the ordering principle of the universe that makes life possible, the ethical drive that propels us to righteousness when we are attuned to God. God is within and beyond, but God doesn’t not sit at a cosmic keyboard programming the world.

For us as Jews, remembering is a sacred obligation. We are commanded repeatedly to remember: to remember that we were enslaved in Egypt, to remember that God redeemed us from bondage, to remember our covenant with God, to remember what Amalek did to our people. Remembering need not be an act of academic historicism nor an occasion to judge others. Remembering can be a profound religious act of ascribing meaning to reality, and directing our lives toward a future of redemption, justice, and compassion.

The plagues suffered by Egypt remind us that the suffering of our enemies is still human suffering, and that even amidst great suffering, redemption is possible. When Israel left Egypt they took others with them: they were an erev rav “a mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38) because they knew that only through compassion for others can justice for any be realized. They understood that through justice and compassion, and with God’s strength, guidance, and support, redemption could be realized. That redemption is with us still – in our memories and directing our actions – so that we can be God’s hands in bringing redemption to others.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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