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Plagues and their Reward

04/07/2022 05:49:38 PM


This shabbat we read parashat Metzorah, which deals with various plagues and afflictions, upon the bodies, and even the homes of the Israelites.  Sermonizers everywhere are relieved that it is also Shabbat Hagadol,  the “Great Sabbath” which precedes Passover, and which reminds us how the Israelites prepared to weather the Death of the Firstborn. As we prepare to for seder, it is worth contemplating the role and value of plagues in our lives.  

Two medieval Spanish commentators, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides and Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, offered contrasting views how the Israelites experienced the ten plagues.  Nachmanides, the mystic assumed the Israelites were only observers, untouched by the increasingly dire afflictions that God sent upon the Egyptians. Ibn Ezra, the rationalist and careful Biblical reader, notes that with the fourth plague on, the Torah indicates that the Israelites were exempted. However, this would lead us to assume that the first three plagues, of blood, frogs and lice, did in fact affect the Israelites. 

Leaving aside the philological wrinkles to this disagreement, there is a more philosophical question being debated.  While one could argue that the intent of the plagues was to give the Egyptians the opportunity to change course, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart mitigates this argument.  Another clearly stated intent of the plagues was to remove all doubt of our God’s superiority to the idols of Egypt.  Having the plagues differentiate between the Jews and their neighbors was certainly one way to assert this power, but having the initial plagues fall upon all, and only then discriminate between them, would create an even greater impression.

According to either view, the experience of the plagues was of benefit to the Israelites- were it not for the pressure of the plagues, the Egyptians would not have been so willing to ply the Israelites with gold and silver, and other parting gifts. Our Torah portion this week, Metzorah, offers a similar teaching.  The Israelites are told that when they enter the land of Canaan, God will send an unusual festering growth upon the walls of some of their homes. One whose home was thus afflicted would have to remove the stones. The commentators explain that this plague was, too, a blessing.  The Canaanites who had previously lived in those homes had hidden treasures in the wall, and when the Israelites removed the afflicted stones, they discovered the treasure.

As we approach this Passover, having put the worst of the some recent plagues behind us, we can reflect on what treasures we have uncovered during this time, and perhaps whether the other afflictions that we suffer in life also create unanticipated opportunities for blessing.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784