Today I begin a new project of looking at the weekly Torah portions, searching for insights on food, agriculture and ecology. Immediately a difficulty presented itself. My approach to the text doesn’t always fit neatly with the portions. This week, for example, is Va-era (Ex 6:2-9:35), and the coming week is Bo (Ex 10:1-13:16). The Ten Plagues, which is what I want to look at in this post, are split between the two portions. As a result, I’m going to move along more or less with the Torah portions but not promise to restrict myself to those confines.
So my next problem was, what to call it? “Torah Portions” doesn’t work because it doesn’t seem it will be exactly that. I hit upon Torah Ecology because it describes nicely how I think my project will unfold.
Ecology is the “study of interactions among organisms and their environment.” It is a study, therefore, of relationships, and one thing I’m pretty sure I’ll find again and again as I study these pages is that Torah is a study of relationships. There are three domains in Torah: Transcendence/G-d, human, creation (which in turn divides into three “environments,” water, air and earth). I want to look at relationships between and within those categories, Torah ecology.
A phrase with variations punctuates the story of the 10 plagues, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” In addition, an interval of 7 days with an association to blood frames it:
- When Moses turns the rivers to blood during the first plague, it lasts for seven days: “And seven days were fulfilled, after that the Lord had smitten the river.” (Ex 7:23)
- Following the tenth plague, when G-d smites the first-born of the Egyptians, G-d says, “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread…” (Ex 12:13-15)
Between this bracket, the ten plagues unfold. As anyone knows who has ever attended a Passover seder, these plagues, in order, are:
- Blood (affects waters)
- Frogs (affect humans)
- Gnats or Lice (affect humans and beasts)
- Flies (affect earth)
- Murrain or plague (kills the cattle)
- Boils (affect cattle and humans)
- Hail (affects beasts, humans, every herb of the field, every tree)
- Locusts (darken the land, eat all remaining vegetation)
- Darkness (palpable, for three days, cannot see one another)
- Slaying of the first-born and proclamation of Passover
Intuition immediately suggests to me there is a structure here. Dr. Norman Fredman, Coordinator of the Counselor Education Programs of Queens College, CUNY, in “The Ten Plagues” points out that “the Haggadah presents the classical argument between Bible scholars: Should the Ten Plagues be viewed as five pairs of plagues or as three triads of plagues (plus one)?”
I want to focus on the latter, three triads plus one, because it relates most closely to my instinctive understanding, that the plagues roll back creation.
In the creation story, which begins with darkness upon the face of the deep, G-d creates the world in two triads (plus one):
- Earth that divides seas from land and puts forth grass, herbs, trees
- Firmament that divides waters above from waters below (heaven or sky)
- Light that divides light from darkness
- Lights in the firmament (sun, moon, stars) to divide day and night
- Creatures of the water and sky
- Creatures of the earth including humans
- Shabbat, the Sabbath, for rest
This arrangement shows G-d creating environments, then filling the environments with life, and crowning all of creation with Shabbat, a day of rest from the work of creating.
In a parallel fashion, the first three plagues affect water and land creatures, beasts and humans. The second three plagues affect the land and land creatures, cattle (domesticated) and humans. The third three plagues affect beasts, remaining vegetation and humans, enveloping them in increasing darkness until finally they can’t even see each other. The world is dark, creation eradicated, the earth returned to “tohu va-vohu,” the darkness and unformed void of pre-creation.
The plus one of the 10th plague, slaying of the first-born, rolls the “future” back into pre-creation. The Egyptians and their world are effectively uncreated with no future.
As with the creation story, on this plus one occasion, G-d proclaims a commemoration, including a time of rest, for the Israelites, who were spared this dissolution of creation. “In the first day there shall be to you a holy convocation, and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done by you.” (Ex 12:16)
As dramatic as the creation story is, a differentiated world of light and dark, land and sea, sun, moon, stars, creatures, human beings and rich vegetation emerging from darkness and unformed void — just as dramatic is the story of the 10 plagues as that creation is first deformed, then swallowed back into darkness and unformed void.
FREEDOM, INTERDEPENDENCE & ECOLOGY
As I try to understand what the text tells me about why G-d would enact this cosmic reversal, I notice a structuring device that points to the relationship between freedom, interdependence and ecological disaster.
Under G-d’s direction, Moses demands from Pharoah, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” This phrase forms a refrain. On three occasions, though, Moses doesn’t make this announcement: the 3rd, 6th and 9th plagues (the last plague in each triad). The 3rd and 6th plagues both begin with Moses throwing dust of the earth into the air, which expands, filling the air and darkening the world with first gnats/lice that attack humans and beasts, then boils that attack humans and their cattle. These plagues foreshadow the 9th plague, when the world becomes palpably dark and people cannot see one another.
The 1st, 4th and 7th (the first plague in each triad) plagues present the refrain differently. In relation to the 1st and 4th plagues, Moses says to Pharaoh, Let my people go that they may serve me in the wilderness. We’ll come back to this.
With regard to the 7th plague, G-d tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go that they may serve me” but adds, “Surely now I had put forth My hand and smitten thee and thy people with pestilence and thou hadst been cut off (va-ti-kached) from the earth…” (Ex 9:15) When Moses speaks to the Israelites on G-d’s behalf about the Feast of Unleavened Bread in preparation for the “plus one” 10th plague, he says, “…for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off (v-nich’r’ta) from Israel.”
Why two different words with such very similar meanings? G-d could have “cut off” the Egyptians…with a word that means, wiped out, annihilated, covered up, hidden. G-d will “cut off” the Israelites in the event that they fail to eat unleavened bread with a word that means, wiped out, destroyed, amputated, lost. I’m still pondering this, but the first thought that occurs to me is that “covered up” and “hidden” associate with the great darkness that comes on the Egyptians as G-d rolls back creation. The Israelites, on the other hand, failing to remember the saving actions that freed them, lose their connection to their people, with whom they were freed and from whom they will be amputated. Failure to remember, and they are lost.
So why does the refrain change before the 1st and 4th plagues, adding, in the wilderness? These plagues represent pollution of the water in the land of Egypt and pollution of the land. Similarly, the 7th plague is disruption in the sky — three environments, water, earth, air, each disrupted and polluted, then poisoning everything in creation. The wilderness is something different, wild, untouched, away from civilization, regenerative. Some have compared it to a mikvah, a ritual bath, spiritual cleansing and regeneration.
There is more. “Midbar,” the Hebrew word for wilderness, has the same root as the word “dabar” or “davar,” meaning word or thing. The Israelites receive G-d’s revelation in the wilderness, a revelation in words. The 10 commandments are “Aseret ha-dibrot,” 10 words or things. And here is another connection to the creation story, where G-d creates with words. G-d speaks to create. The wilderness experience links creation, revelation and redemption (return of the Israelites to the “land” and to G-d).
There are many themes and threads in this story, but those that stand out to me are the nature and meaning of creation and of humanity and the relationship between G-d, creation and human beings.
G-d requires Pharaoh to free G-d’s people. The world envisioned in the Torah is one in which freedom is a basic premise of humanity. Only in freedom can human beings experience their connection to the rest of creation, to each other and to Transcendence. Israelite freedom is for the purpose of worship, connection to Transcendence. G-d’s demand is that the Israelites leave Egypt, the place of bondage, to go to the wilderness, the place of freedom, of words, of creativity, a place where they can hear G-d speak. The wilderness is also a place where they connect with the truth of the natural world, away from the confines of civilization.
In contrast, Pharaoh enslaves people. In slavery, people live in darkness, so dark they cannot even see each other. This alienation causes disruption in the fabric of creation. Each of the plagues is an environmental disaster with pollution of land and water and disruption of the heavens destroying all life in those environments. Creation becomes uninhabitable, people are hidden from each other, there is no future, no connection to Transcendence, and finally everything is swallowed up in darkness and formless void, a wordless pre-creation state.
While the story is one of freedom, teaching us that only free human beings can connect to Transcendence and to their natural environment, it is also one of interdependence, in which distortions in one realm cause distortions in others. People alienated from Transcendence are also alienated from the natural world and finally from each other. They are isolated, annihilated, covered up and hidden.
As I studied this story, reading the details of each plague and envisioning the experience, I was awed by the power of the words. This bondage, this lack of freedom, was an affront to creation, an affront to the balance of the cosmos, the balance between human life, the rest of creation and the unity behind and through all being. This slavery brought on a darkness so pervasive and palpable that one human could not see another. It brought about the end of creation.
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