Category Archives: Torah Ecology

Torah Ecology: Mishpatim 2017 (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18)

If the first three chapters of Genesis outline the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings, Yitro repeats that equation in the section on the 10 “Words” but with the significant additional element of a particular society (Israel, signified by “neighbor”).

Mishpatim (Ex 21:1 – 24:18) now zooms in on that community, providing it with a set of ordinances (Mishpatim) to govern relations within the community and between that community, its wider environment and transcendence.

I think there is a structure in these ordinances but have not yet unravelled the entire sequence, so I will note some marking points:

Ex 21:2 parallels Ex 23:10-12, forming the boundaries of what I think is a chiasm.  Ex 21:2 ordains that a Hebrew slave can only serve 6 years, then in the 7th year must be set free.

Ex 23:10-12 ordains that Israelites sow their land and harvest their olives and vineyards for 6 years and in the 7th years let the fields lie fallow, leaving the olives on the trees and grapes on the vine so first the poor, then the “beasts” can eat.

Ex 23:12 proclaims that Israelites must do their work in 6 days and on the 7th day rest. This rest extends to their beasts (ox and ass), the “son of your handmaid,” and the stranger, emblematic of every creature for whom an Israelite has responsibility.

This frame for the entire sequence of ordinances Moses delivers to the Israelite community puts forward the idea of freedom as primary and foundational. This freedom applies not only to every part of Israelite society, including those less advantaged, but to fellow creatures and to the natural environment itself. G-d is also free. As we will see, this freedom has boundaries based on relationships with other parts of the cosmos.

“Shavat,” the Hebrew word that describes what G-d does on the 7th day and is the basis for the name of the 7th day, Shabbat, also states the primary requirement for an Israelite on the 7th day: “cease.” This requirement to “cease,” applies not only to the Israelite but to any part of creation for which he or she is immediately responsible, whether other human beings, beasts in his or her care, or nature itself under his or her care.

The 7th year or the 7th day restores a balance. A slave goes free, the land rests and replenishes, providing the poor and the beasts of the field with nourishment. For a period of time, an Israelite can take — but there is also a time to give back, to allow restoration. In the 7th year or on the 7th day, Israelites feed their fellow creatures and the creation that sustains them during the other six.

Ex 22:17. This odd verse seems to pop in from nowhere in the context of these ordinances: “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live.” In a section of ordinances detailing correct relationships within society and with the wider environment, fellow creatures and transcendence, a section in which each ordinance is thereby transactional in nature, this single statement is not transactional. I think in  its uniqueness, it is the center of the chiasm.

The verse is sandwiched between ordinances related to sexual perversions that disrupt society and nature. Ex 22:15 declares “And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.” Ex 22:18 says, “Whosoever lies with a beast shall surely be put to death.”

For the offense in Ex 22:15, seducing a virgin, there are remedies that serve to restore a correct balance in relationships. There is no possibility of restoration in regard to Ex 22:18, sexual “intimacy” with a beast. The solution is death, as for the sorceress. Sorcery and engaging in sex acts with an animal are profoundly anti-creation, so disruptive that the life of the offender must be taken. But how, exactly, is sorcery anti-creation?

The translation, “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live” camouflages the sharpness of the Hebrew, which doesn’t waste a syllable: מְכַשֵּׁפָה, לֹא תְחַיֶּה – three words. The first, M’ka’shefa (feminine form), translated “sorceress,” what does it mean?

Deut 18:9-14 lists a number of illicit and prohibited “wielders of supernatural power,” including a M’ka-shef (masculine form). One scholar notes that an Assyrian Dictionary glosses the verb kašāpu with “to bewitch, to cast an evil spell,” and the contexts cited share the sense of malevolent control of a person (or even place).

This last explanation seems particularly relevant to me. In a section of ordinances setting out correct relationships between an Israelite, the rest of creation and transcendence, bracketed by regulations that assert freedom as the foundation of these relationships and ordain a balance between them, a M’ka-shef/a represents a force that applies illegitimate supernatural controls. In that, it offends against all parts of cosmos by inappropriately restricting the moral freedom that unifies and is the foundation to everything.

The ordinances presented to the Israelites affirm the freedom of every part of the cosmos limited only by relationship to others, whether human, animal, the environment  or Transcendence. Thus Lurianic mysticism teaches that even G-d places restrictions on G-d’s self, contracts to allow freedom within appropriate boundaries to each individual, indeed every creature and nature itself. Seducing a virgin offends against society. Engaging in sexual acts with an animal offends against nature. Sorcery offends against the very fabric of cosmos, against creation, the creatures in it and transcendence.

In this powerful presentation of how we should live in the world, G-d also teaches through ordinances how we become partners in creating. Mishpatim tells us how to proclaim and support the freedom not only of each individual in a society but of all our fellow creatures and of nature through how we conduct ourselves in relationship to them. In observing these ordinances, in establishing correct relationships, we find our own freedom.

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Torah Ecology: Yitro 2017 (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23)

Yitro (Ex 18:1-24:18) begins with a story of working out the relationship between Moses and the Israelites and ends with a story of working out the relationship between the Israelites, G-d and the natural world. Choreography mediates these negotiations, which seem to suggest that G-d forgets earlier instructions and requires a reminder from Moses. Part of the process is a democratization of the relationship between the Israelites and transcendence.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY OF RELATIONSHIPS

  • Ex 18:5 Yitro comes to Moses
  • Ex 18:12 Aaron and the elders come to Moses & Yitro, “eat before G-d”
  • Ex 18:27 Yitro leaves
  • Ex 19:2 Israelites camp near Mt. Sinai
  • Ex 19:3 Moses goes up to G-d
  • Ex 19:7 Moses “came” and called for the Elders, relates to them
  • Ex 19:8 Israelites “all the people” respond (although it doesn’t specifically tell us that Elders went to them with report)
  • Ex 19:8b Moses goes up to report to the Lord
  • Ex 19:14 Moses goes down to prepare the Israelites
  • Ex 19:17 Moses takes the Israelites to the bottom of the Mt.
  • Ex 19:18 The Lord “descends” in fire, smokes “ascends”
  • Ex 19:20 Moses goes up to the top of the Mt. where a curious negotiation occurs about who should come up, and Moses reminds G-d that G-d already said the people should not – G-d says, ok, just you come with Aaron, not the priests
  • Ex 19:25 Moses goes down to Israelites
  • Ex 20:1 G-d speaks to Israelites at base of Mt., delivering Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the 10 “words” – the Israelites tell Moses that he should speak with G-d and then deliver G-d’s words to them, not G-d directly (Ex 20:16)
  • Moses enters the “thick darkness” to hear G-d speak about G-d’s self

What occurs in the course of Moses’ dance between his extended family, Aaron, the Elders of the People, the Israelites and G-d?

  • Hierarchical society. Moses father-in-law, Yitro, comes to Moses and “eats before G-d” with Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel, the Elders of the people and a priestly elite (Yitro is a priest of Midian, Moses a levite, Aaron a priest). Before leaving, Yitro advises Moses to establish a hierarchy of judges to share the task of judging the Israelites. Thus, by the time Yitro departs, we have these categories of Israelite society and an administrative framework: priests, levites, elders of the people, judges and Israelites.
  • Entire society arrives at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites, led by Moses and with their priests, levites, elders and judges, progress in their journey, arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai in the third month, Sivan.
  • Negotiation and democratization. Moses “goes up” the mountain in 19:3 to speak with G-d, shuttling back and forth, initially communicating G-d’s words to the Israelites through the Elders. On another trip up the mountain in this sequence, a negotiation occurs in which G-d seems to expect the priests to come up the mountain with Moses until Moses reminds G-d of an earlier instruction. Finally, G-d’s instruction is that the priests will remain with the Israelites, their judges and elders and only Aaron will accompany Moses to the mountaintop to speak with G-d.
  • Moses becomes the emissary of the whole people at their request. In the last sequence, Moses joins the people at the base of the mountain, and G-d speaks to everyone at the base of the mountain, delivering the 10 words or 10 commandments. Overwhelmed with the power of the experience, the people voice their preference, that Moses alone should go and hear the words of G-d and return to relate them to the community. Moses then enters the “thick darkness,” where G-d delivers three directives:
  1. You shall not make “with Me” gods of silver or gold.
  2. You shall make an altar of earth to Me. Tooling it in any way profanes it.
  3. You shall not go up by steps to my altar so your “nakedness” will not be uncovered.

The people cannot define G-d. In this case, the gods of silver and gold represent definition and thereby confinement. The people worship G-d by gathering at a completely natural altar, representing G-d’s creativity, not embellished with human creativity. It is a statement about approaching G-d unencumbered by civilization, reemphasizing the idea that G-d resists human definition or embellishment.

The third directive reminds the people indirectly that they are in the image of their creator. The obvious intention is that displaying genitals in that public forum is unseemly for one created in the image of G-d. Another intention, though, might be to refrain from any indication of gender. G-d appears with a body at several points in the biblical text — always concealing, though, anything that might suggest gender. Similarly this representative of the people, “in the image” of G-d, can have no indication of gender on display, undermining an idea of G-d’s unity and again emphasizing that G-d cannot be confined in a specific earthly form.

While the sequence until now first defined, then democratized Israelite society, this last segment shows us G-d talking about G-d’s self, beyond definition, beyond constriction in earthly forms, a creator G-d whose unadorned earth speaks of G-d’s glory and serves as a point of focus for worship.

THE 10 “WORDS” OR COMMANDMENTS

The 10 commandments in 20:1-20:14 reveal the 3-part structure of cosmos set out in the first three chapters of Genesis: transcendence, all of creation and human beings. Here, though, we have an additional, fourth, element of structure, “neighbor.” The structure of the commandments is 3-2-3-2.

The first three commandments refer to G-d: 1) I am the Lord your G-d; you shall have no others before Me, 2) No graven images, 3) Don’t take the Name of the Lord in vain.

The second two commandments refer to creation, G-d’s and human creativity: 1) Remember the Sabbath, and 2) Honor your father and mother. G-d created the world, nature and humanity and rested; and your mother and father created you, brought you into life. These two commandments are the only positive commandments of the ten.

The next three commandments refer to all of humanity, all of human society: 1) Don’t murder, 2) Don’t commit adultery, and 3) Don’t steal.

The last two commandments use the distinctive word “neighbor,” re-ah (resh-ayin-hay): 1) Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor, and 2) Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, man-servant…etc.

The first chapters of Genesis spoke of a 3-part cosmos: transcendence-earth/creation-human beings. Those chapters outlined the relationship between the parts of creation. The 10 commandments reflect that 3-part cosmos but add a further subdivision: neighbors. Thus we have all of creation, of which humanity is part, and neighbors, who are part of humanity. This new segment begs the question, who is a neighbor?

One interpretation is that neighbors are Israelite society, and in a cascading scheme, each part containing what follows, that makes sense:

  1. Transcendence
  2. Creation
  3. Humanity
  4. Neighbors (Israelites?)

The Torah itself, though, expands that conception. Leviticus 19:18 commands us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Lev 19:34 tells us: “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Through parallelism, the second phrase suggests that a neighbor is the “home-born,” that is, a member of Israelite society — but also tells us that the stranger, someone not an Israelite who lives in the community, is like the home-born.

The rabbis tend toward a more universal interpretation. Rabbi Hillel in Shab. 31a says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” Avot i.12 offers an even more universal application, “Love your fellow creatures.” Avot ii.11 presents Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania saying that hatred of one’s fellow creatures is one of three things that drives man out of the world.

My own inclination, based on the cascading structure of the 10 commandments, is to understand “neighbor” as that person who is part of your society.

Having said that, though, I also want to point out that who makes up a society changes with time and circumstance, even within the biblical framework. The society in the wilderness of Sinai who received the commandments was Israelite, for the most part, although Moses own wife, Zipporah, was not. In the Land, others lived among the Israelites. Political turmoil and wars in the life of the nation resulted in an ever more cosmopolitan society. Certainly by the time of the rabbis and diaspora, the idea of society was much broader.

Today, in a global environment, in which the actions of each of us affect the balance of nature and all life in every part of the globe, the rabbis’ broadest understanding of who their “neighbor” was, namely all one’s fellow creatures, seems right and extraordinarily prescient. We are full circle back to the idea in the first three chapters of Bereishit, also expressed by the Jewish mystics, that everything is interdependent, G-d/transcendence, creation, human beings, and now we add to that, our smaller human societies. Every smallest action affects everything else.

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Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2017 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

INTRODUCTION

The first three chapters of Genesis tell us the entire story of the Torah. As one of my teachers used to say about Jewish ritual, it’s the “microcosm of the macrocosm.” If I am actually able to work through a year of Torah portions, eventually I’ll arrive at Bereishit, and I’ll write more about those chapters.

And so it was that the Ten Plagues in my last post portrayed a roll back of creation into primordial darkness, void and emptiness in Mizraim (Egypt) – the “narrow place.” That story was a reflection on the results of wrong relationships between human beings, transcendence and nature. It was a world of relationships built on power and dominance.

This week’s story is a teaching about how right relationships work, built on interdependence and trust. The section from this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Ex 13:17-17:16), where I’m focusing, references both those first three chapters of Genesis and the Ten Plagues of last week’s portion. I’m looking here at Exodus 15:22-16:7, a story of sufficiency and scarcity, faith and lack of faith, and as always, the deep interdependence of nature, human life and transcendence.

CHIASMS

In my unpublished Masters thesis, I looked at narrative chiasms in Genesis, a frequent biblical literary device. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to the chiastic structure of Beshallach, beginning and ending with a battle and featuring crossing the Red Sea as the turning point of the story. He suggests the meaning of this crossing is to represent a passage from one state of being to another.

I also notice another chiasm within the story, a chiasm within a chiasm: Exodus 15:22 begins after the sea crossing, after Miriam’s song, and describes Israelite discontent over their thirst and lack of water at Mara (bitter), where the water is bitter and undrinkable. The section ends at 16:7, another story of thirst and discontent over lack of water at Massa (testing) and Meriva (argument). Between these two events is a story of hunger and profound discontent in the wilderness, where G-d responds with quail for meat in the evening and manna for bread in the morning.

Following the crossing of the sea, a story when there is too much water, water that parts to allow the Israelites to cross and consumes the Egyptian army, we arrive at a story bracketed by water scarcity. The turning point of the story is food scarcity, and the teaching comes through food. Details of the story suggest some ways to think about it.

OTHER DETAILS OF THE SECTION: MURMURS & RESPONSES

The Hebrew root “lun” (lamed-vav-nun) occurs repeatedly, at least once in each of the water scarcity segments and more than five times in the food scarcity segment. The verb means “murmur,” as a noun, “murmurings.” Other translations include grumble, mutter, complain and protest. The word communicates a sense of half-suppressed dissatisfaction.

Through the story, the murmuring becomes more audible, more specifically and vehemently voiced in a crescendo of complaints: At first, in the Wilderness of Shur when the Israelites arrive at Mara, they just murmur, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Ex 15:25)

Then, when they arrive at the Wilderness of Sin after 3 days journey following their stay in Elim, a relative paradise: “Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 15:3).

Finally, during the passage from the Wilderness of Sin to Rephidim, the Israelites murmur again: “Give us water that we may drink…Why is it that you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” Now their complaint is not just for themselves but for their cattle, and it is accompanied with a demand: Give us water.

Moses is fortunate. On each occasion, G-d speaks with him, reassuring and instructing him. Still, Moses’ own sense of outrage over the doubts of the people he leads grows with each instance.

In response to the first instance of murmuring, Moses cries to the Lord, “and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” In words that refer back to the plagues brought on the Egyptians, G-d tells G-d’s people, through Moses, that if they follow the commandments, G-d will spare them the diseases brought on the Egyptians, “For I am the Lord that heals you.”

On the second occasion, Moses doesn’t even need to cry out. G-d is immediately present for him with a solution: “I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will follow my Torah or not. And it shall come to pass, on the sixth day when they shall prepare that which they bring in, that it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.” (Ex 15:4)

As Moses and Aaron relate this solution to the people, Moses exclaims, “What are we, that you murmur against us?…your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.” (Ex 16:8)

In the course of the story of manna, Moses becomes angry when the people fail to follow his instructions on how to gather and prepare the manna. Some left it until morning, and it gathered worms and stank.

Finally, on the third occasion of murmuring, at Massa and Meriva, when the people “strive” with Moses and demand water, he says to them, “‘Why do you strive with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?’…And Moses cried to the Lord, saying, ‘What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me.'”

G-d immediately responds with another reference to the plagues of Egypt: “Pass before the people, and take…the elders of Israel and your rod, with which you smote the river, take in your hand, and go…I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horev, and you will smite the rock, and water will come out of it that the people may drink.”

The crescendo of murmurings through the chiasm parallels the growing intensity of Moses’ responses and G-d’s constant and steady responsiveness. The good news here is that despite the growing agitation of the people and Moses’ growing alarm and impatience with them, G-d hears their murmurings: “Come near before the Lord, for He has heard your murmurings.” (Ex 16:9)

But still the faith and trust of the people fail, as Moses indicates when he “called the name of the place Massa and Meriva because of the strife of the children of Israel and because they tempted the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'” (Ex 17:7) Despite the crossing of the sea, despite G-d providing water when there is none, despite G-d providing food daily and a double portion on the Sabbath, despite G-d providing sweet water when the water in one encampment is bitter, despite that G-d hears, the Israelites murmur and demand, failing to trust.

TWO MORE DETAILS: PALM TREES & OMER

Just after the first episode at Mara when bitter waters become sweet and drinkable and G-d indicates G-d’s role as “healer” if the Israelites follow the commandments, they arrive at Elim, “where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.” I want to consider, for a moment, that extraordinary time. The Israelites have not just the sweet and drinkable water for which they thirst but water from twelve springs — and plenty to eat, represented in the palms.

A grade-school science site shares these amazing details about the date palm: “The date fruit is about 58 percent sugar and contains some protein, fat, and minerals… The single grooved seed of a date fruit yields oil. The seeds also can be ground up for a coffee substitute or for camel feed. The trunk and the sturdy midribs of the leaves are used to make crates and furniture. The leaves are woven into baskets. Date cluster stalks are made into rope or burned for fuel, and the fiber makes good packing material. The sap is drinkable. It can also be boiled down to make palm-sugar candy. The bud tips can be eaten as a salad.”

To state the obvious, life is just like that, isn’t it? From times of extraordinary plenty and tranquility to times of scarcity and hardship. And it’s the hard times that require faith in a better future, faith that this moment will not last for eternity, that this moment will inevitably shape us but not fully define us.

But something else occurs to me, and that is that when we have faith, when we are in an open and receiving mode, G-d provides. When we have faith, when we are in an open and receiving mode, nature provides.

And this brings me to the final detail I want to mention, and that is, the omer of manna. Each Israelite is to gather an omer, no more and no less, each morning and cook it and prepare it as they will and finish it by nightfall. Those who gather more find themselves with just an omer — and those who don’t gather enough also have an omer. If they don’t use up their portion that day, by morning it has worms and stinks.

The entire sequence, water-food-water, is experiential learning, with the central episode of the manna providing the key to the learning experience. The sequence is a lesson in “right” and harmonious relationships. Israel must learn to trust and depend on G-d, who with each incident “hears” and provides.

But there is more: another part of the lesson is social and ecological. When all is in balance, when our relationship with transcendence, our neighbors and the earth is harmonious, each person has according to their needs and no one can take more than what they need. We are dependent on nature, transcendence and each other, and we must learn to trust in our interdependence.

The Israelites are to gather an extra portion on Friday since there will be none on the Sabbath. That which is left over at the end of the day Friday neither has worms nor stinks the next morning, and if anyone tries to gather on the Sabbath, they find nothing. Again, survival depends on trust and taking from the earth what is necessary and appropriate, fulfilling one’s needs without greed. A day without gathering…learning to trust that what’s needed will be there. This is a very different idea than saving up for a rainy day!

The story of the manna provides a glimpse of the harmonious relationships of Eden, when greed is not in the picture and each has enough for their needs, when nature and human beings are in harmony with each other and transcendence.  A weekly pause from marching and gathering and creating and building and taking care of one’s own needs reminds the Israelites they are not dominant but dependent on G-d and nature.

Moses tells the Israelites to enshrine a jar filled with one omer of manna, putting it “before the Lord,” as a reminder throughout the generations of this balance, this interdependence, this time when all receive according to their needs and no one can rape the earth or their fellow Israelites. The center point of the manna, between the waters, tells us that for a time, the harmonious relationships of Eden are restored. Sadly not everyone gets the message or the experience, and so they move on to more drought. Even that, though, is not an ending.

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Torah Ecology: Va-era & Bo 2017 (Ex 10:1-13:16)

INTRODUCTION

Today I begin a new project of looking at the weekly Torah portions, searching for insights on food, “animal rights,” 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.

TEN PLAGUES

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:

  1. Blood (affects waters)
  2. Frogs (affect humans)
  3. Gnats or Lice (affect humans and beasts)
  4. Flies (affect earth)
  5. Murrain or plague (kills the cattle)
  6. Boils (affect cattle and humans)
  7. Hail (affects beasts, humans, every herb of the field, every tree)
  8. Locusts (darken the land, eat all remaining vegetation)
  9. Darkness (palpable, for three days, cannot see one another)
  10. 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):

  • Light that divides light from darkness
  • Firmament that divides waters above from waters below (heaven or sky)
  • Earth that divides seas from land and puts forth grass, herbs, trees
  • 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 see the earth or 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).

CONCLUSION

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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