Parashat Bo: In this imperfect world

This week's Torah portion of Bo brings the 10 plagues to their zenith and relates how they ultimately convince Pharaoh to give the Jews their freedom.

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February 1, 2006 08:24
4 minute read.
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"And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said to him, 'So says the Lord God of the Hebrews... If you refuse to let My people go, I shall tomorrow bring locusts upon your borders.'" - (Exodus 10:3,4) This week's Torah portion of Bo brings the 10 plagues to their zenith and relates how they ultimately convince Pharaoh to give the Jews their freedom. Emerging from these plagues, as well as from the story of the Flood, is the prevalent notion - even logical to most religionists - that natural disasters are a special sign of Divine displeasure, a punishment from the Almighty for our sins. This notion becomes even more relevant when we recall the recent tsunami, as well as the hurricanes and earthquakes which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left many more wounded, homeless and destitute off the coast of Asia and in Pakistan, New Orleans and Florida. When we realize that these victims included innocent children and very upstanding adults, it becomes difficult to understand how a beneficent God could cause such suffering. When we examine the talmudic sources which discuss natural disasters, a very different theological picture may emerge. Although there certainly are statements suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship regarding such phenomena (J.T. Berachot 9, 2), there is a major source which bears further study. The Mishna teaches, "…upon witnessing an earthquake… one recites the blessing, 'Blessed art Thou… whose strength and power fills the world' (Mishna Berachot 9, 2)." Rabbenu Ovadia Bartenura, probably the most well-known classical Mishna commentator, offers an alternate blessing: "Blessed art Thou… Creator of the world," based on an alternative reading of the Mishna. Our legal code enables an individual to choose whichever blessing he prefers. What is the difference between these two blessings? Moreover, when the Talmud attempts to explain earthquakes, one reason given is, "When the Holy One, blessed be He, is reminded of the great pain of His children suffering under the heels of their gentile oppressors, He sheds two tears into the Mediterranean Sea whose sound is heard from one end of the world to the other. That is what we call an earthquake" (B.T. Berachot 59a). This, too, seems like a strange comment. Let us return once again to this week's Torah reading and the very first commandment given to the Jewish People: "This renewal of the moon shall be for you [the festival of] the new moons…" (Exodus 12:2). We are commanded to mark the new moon. Witnesses must peer at the black sky until they see its first glimmering light, and must then set out for the Sanhedrin to report their sighting, even if this means transgressing Shabbat. We even have a monthly ritual in which we sing songs of praise and dance in a circle while gazing up at the new moon. Why such moon fascination? The beginning of the answer stems from the Midrash, which sees the emergence and subsequent waxing of the moon as the ultimate symbol of world redemption. This harks back to the Midrash cited by Rashi: "Both the sun and moon were initially created of equal size (Genesis 1:16), but God lessened the moon [cut her down to size] because she was critical and said it was impossible for two kings to wear one crown. The moon was jealous of the sun; since she wanted to be the major light, God made the sun the major light." I believe this Midrash is teaching us that God built jealousy - the source of many sins - into the very fabric of creation. He punishes the moon, but allows her - as well as all His subsequent creations - the freedom to choose evil. In effect, nature reflects human beings; as long as human society remains imperfect and undisciplined, nature will likewise be undisciplined and imperfect. The prophet Isaiah expresses this very well: "I create light and I make darkness, I make peace and create evil; I am God who does all these things…" (Isaiah 45:7). The picture is of an imperfect, incomplete world, with darkness as well as light, chaos as well as order. God has chosen human beings to be His partners - not his puppets - with the freedom of choice to perfect the world under the Kingship of God and to help bring about world redemption. God guarantees that this will eventually happen; but when and precisely how depends on us as much as on Him. God is not always pictured as being happy with the nature of the world He has created. Indeed, the talmudic sage Reish Lakish suggests that God even brings His own sin offering on the day of the new moon for having created an imperfect world of free choice and tragedy, of good things that happen to bad people and bad things that happen to good people (B.T. Shavuot 9a). I believe this is why the Almighty weeps; it is His tears - not His might - which produce earthquakes and tsunamis. From this perspective the more appropriate blessing upon seeing such a disaster is praise to the God of Creation rather than to the God of power. And we are certainly heartened by the ultimate vision of Isaiah, who promises us that when humanity perfects itself, God will perfect nature. At that time, "When the wolf and the lamb lie down together… and when there is no evil or destruction in the mountain of My holiness," there will be no more earthquakes or tsunamis. But we cannot escape our responsibility; at the end of the day, it depends on us. Shabbat shalom The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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