The Purpose of Plagues (Parashat Vaera)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

This week’s Torah portion covers a story from the Bible that both enchanted and utterly terrified me as a boy. It’s the story of the plagues being visited on Egypt. First, it’s a tale with seemingly magical duels. Where previous stories have shown us the wondrous power of G-d moving upon His creation, in this story, G-d commands Moses and Aaron to show signs to the Pharaoh on His behalf, and to provide a sort of Greek chorus to the plagues G-d sends down.

Second, this is another tale of G-d’s severity visited upon creation. In that sense, it reminds me of the story of Noah. Both are stories about divine wrath and punishment, challenges to believe that our lives and choices have meaning before G-d, and that the world we experience will be reckoned accordingly.

G-d’s seeming anger can be difficult to sit with. Even I am drawn to look away from this aspect of G-d in favor of moments of mercy or a more macroscopic approach to morality and the limits of physicality. But severity is a column at the foundation of creation. It’s G-d’s punishment, frustration, jealousy, and anger that encourage our refinement and growth, push us to greater states both physically and spiritually, and help us to return back to the light of our Creator in a world where none of the above is even an expectation.

So I look at the Egyptians of this story as a people much like our society today in total denial of G-d’s presence in the world. They are not without their sorcerers, metaphysicians, and gawds, but have forgotten their own creation, forgotten their Creator, and forgotten the men of G-d sent to remind and realign them previously (Exodus 1:8). They’ve thrown themselves out of alignment with all potential in them since birth, and chosen to waste before manmade systems and mortal kings instead. There’s a passage in Ezekiel later in the Bible where G-d, speaking through the prophet, proclaims:

Behold, I am against you,
O Pharaoh king of Egypt,
O great monster who lies in the midst of his rivers,
Who has said, ‘My River is my own;
I have made it for myself.”

(Ezekiel 29:3 NKJV)

That inversion is what this is about on some level. The Pharaoh has replaced G-d with himself at the head of creation. The people of Egypt have replaced G-d with their pharaoh king in their lives. It’s like that axiom “Good creates, evil only mocks creation.” The Egyptians are living in a society which has degenerated into evil. See: last week’s parsha for examples.

The purpose of the plagues we read about here, the motivation behind G-d’s punishment meted out against the Egyptians is to reorient them back to the possibility of good there. If the intention was to simply wipe them out, there would have been another Great Flood. But that’s not what G-d wanted. G-d wanted to set them right. The reasoning He provides repeatedly throughout this story is that the Egyptians shall know  that He is G-d (Ex. 7:5, 7:17, 8:10, 8:22, 9:14, and 9:29).

Are We Living Through Another Set of Plagues?

I said last week that we’re living through the Pharaoh’s death cult, and I stand by that. There is so much in our society which mirrors the society of the Egyptians found in the Bible. We’re bitterly divided, violent and bigoted towards whole subsets of our society, poisoning and enacting other forms of violence upon ourselves, and just in general living in a state of deep denial and separation from our Creator.

Our society has calcified into an evil one, no longer aligned to the possibility of good, holiness, or unity in the Most High, but seduced by wickedness and depravity instead.

There was a time, not long ago, when the lungs of the planet were seemingly on fire in wildfires that swept across the globe, when Notre Dame caught fire, and a thousand other more microscopic phenomena caught the attention of anyone looking for signs of divine retribution. In the proud tradition of there always being a rabbi somewhere saying something crazy, I think I even recall hearing how Notre Dame was connected to some antisemitic persecution centuries ago. G-d is  slow to anger, after all.

With the advent of the COVID pandemic, I remember many of my liberal friends jumping back on this bandwagon of divine punishment. Here was an actual, legitimate plague which cemented in their minds the divine stance on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Like the contemporary activist theology that mirrors in some ways the story of Joseph (but without teshuvah, without forgiveness or reconciliation, only intrinsic dynamics of separation), the synchronicity at least is apparent to us in the phenomena of wildfires, a burning church, and an actual plague. But our interpretation of it, our reception of the meaning is blocked by the hardness of our hearts.

We see the divine punishment, but we wouldn’t imagine it has anything to do with us. We have no humility anymore. We see no Creator. We internalize only the petty suggestion that these things are a gawd (we don’t even believe in) telling us how it feels about Donald Trump.

I have no strong conviction either way about whether “the plagues” of today’s world are expressions of divine punishment, natural or chance phenomenon, or part of some other nefarious plot. (As Joseph might tell us, beyond even the most deliberate and evil choice of man is the will of G-d). Their origins are beside the point really. What matters, what seems revealed to me both in the text and in living through it all, is that we are a people, who, like the Egyptians, are in desperate need of knowing  G-d.

I need to know G-d. Our communities need to know G-d. This country needs to know G-d.

Modernity has stripped that connection from us. It has pulled out the meaning of stories like Joseph’s and like the plagues of Egypt. It has stranded us without purpose (but what it assigns to us), without direction (but where it encloses us), and without wisdom (but what it indoctrinates in us). We are living in the death cult of the Pharaoh.

Whatever shakes us back to life, whether a plague or otherwise, we ought to allow to revive us.

G-d has already commanded that we be set free.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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