Posts Tagged 'Plague'

Fire and Water: The Jewish Secret

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the plague of hail. Seeing that the wealth of Egypt came from Joseph being able to foresee the seven years of splendor followed by seven years of drought, this seems like an odd plague. In some way the Egyptians are being rewarded with rain (in another form) in an arid climate. It seems like more of a blessing then a curse. There we read:

So Moshe stretched forth his staff heavenward, and the Lord gave forth thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth, and the Lord rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been throughout the entire land of Egypt since it had become a nation. ( Exodus 9:23-24)

What did it mean, “flaming within the hail”? On this Rashi writes:

This was a miracle within a miracle. The fire and hail intermingled. Although hail is water, to perform the will of their Maker they made peace between themselves [that the hail did not extinguish the fire nor did the fire melt the hail]. — [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

It seems that while some of the plagues were punitive, this plague was really a sign. And not just any sign, but a miracle in a miracle. How much of the meaning of the plague about the media?

What is the meaning of the fire and the hail being “intermingled- M’Uravim”. We find the same root used in the Gemara we learn that “All Israel are responsible for another- Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh” (Shevuot 39a). At the outset of Moshe’s project to redeem the people of Israel, he had to unite a disparate group of slaves behind a common cause of their liberation. In this plague we see a miracle within a miracle. We see forging of the Jewish people into one unit.

In light of the ugly reemergence of antisemitism in Europe, it makes we pause and wonder if we need another plague of hail. Despite all of our differences throughout history, antisemitism has kept us all together. This reminds me of a famous quote by Mark Twain. He wrote:

”…If statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way. properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (“Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899)

Perhaps it is our ability to hold fire and water together that is the secret to our success.

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Repugnant Cycle

In VaEra, next week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

But, maybe there is another way to see the Midrash that explains that the odor is measure for measure. Back in the stories in Genesis we read about when Rebecca helped Jacob steel the blessing from Esau. There we read:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.”So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and he blessed him. And he said, “Are you [indeed] my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”And he said, “Serve [it] to me that I may eat of the game of my son, so that my soul will bless you.” And he served him, and he ate, and he brought him wine, and he drank.And his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! ( Genesis 27:21-27)

Isaac is blind, but not stupid. We get a sense from the text that he knows that something is off. This is not Esau. It is as if he is Little Red Ridding Hood trying to figure out where her grandmother is, Isaac is trying to figure out if this is Esau or Jacob.  Jacob is unable to imitate Esau’s voice, but between the costume, feel of his hands, food, and drink he passes for Esau.  In a simple reading it was his smell that convinced Isaac.

Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving with smell, before the Israelites are worthy of redemption from Egypt their odor is exposed. The Israelites are shamed measure for measure.  In turn the Egyptians are shamed measure for measure. When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? What has been exposed about themselves?  What starts with the desire for blessing and affirmation expands out to cycle of shame and violence. There are powerful lessons here about the cycle of bullying- it does not smell very good.

– This post is linked to others on synesthesia


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