In Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35), the famous “Dynamic Duo” siblings, Moses and Aaron, repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of God, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” But the pharaoh, who is seen as the Egyptian god, repeatedly refuses to acknowledge being defeated by the Israelite’s God, who is acting here as a transcendent God, an Almighty God of Nature.
Then, the Israelite God sends seven plagues that are related to the environment. The waters of the Nile turn to blood. Swarms of frogs overrun the land. Lice infest all humans and beasts. Out-of-control wild animals invade the cities. A disease called “pestilence” (perhaps an ancient reference to the contagious bubonic plague) kills domestic animals and humans. Excruciating boils afflict the Egyptians. The seventh plague descends from the skies as a devastating onslaught of hail, a combination of both ice and fire: “…throughout the land of Egypt the hail struck down all that were in the open, both man and beast” (Exod. 9:25). The hail also struck down all the grasses and shattered all the trees of the field, causing major environmental ruin in the ancient land of Egypt.
The Israelite God orchestrates all of these plagues: an almighty God of superior nature. Still, “The heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the Children of Israel go” (Exodus 9:35)
Does any of this sound familiar?
“Some scholars have proposed naturalistic explanations for these events…. For instance, the claim has been made that the Nile appeared red due to red sediment caused by uncommonly heavy rainfalls,” says Dr. Rachel Havrelock. “However,” she continues, “the rhetoric of Exodus emphasizes that these are unique preternatural occurrences intended to promote awareness of divine power.” (The Women’s Torah, URJ Press, p. 338)
But does it really matter whether the plagues were miracles or the result of scientific phenomena?
Twice a year, we tell the story of how God delivered our ancestors from slavery into freedom: first during these weekly Torah readings and later during Passover seders. However, perhaps we should use this opportunity to read Parshat Va’era and examine our own modern indulgences and how they lead to our enslavement?
Perhaps, this is a great opportunity to take deeper look at ourselves and figure out how we, as a free people, can easily turn into oblivious, greedy, indulgent pharaohs when it comes to our weakening environment? Maybe this is our wake-up call to examine our world, and its addiction to an unsustainable environmentally destructive reality based on aspects of fossil fuel consumption, byproducts of meat-eating, air and water pollution, as well as hazardous waste production.
We learn that each of us must see herself or himself as though God had lifted us out of slavery. We are instructed to learn from our ancestors’ experiences, and do the wise thing: acknowledge our enslavements. As we know, the pharaoh of Exodus will eventually give up and let the Israelites go. However, today our enslavement to indulgent lifestyles and our lack of consciousness about the environmental consequences are being put to the test. How long can we engage in abusive behavior toward nature, before our God or the elements will put a stop to our environmentally irresponsible behavior?
I find it so interesting that the plagues discussed in this week’s Torah portion specifically describe natural disasters similar to what we’re experiencing today: water pollution and scarcity; frogs and other essential amphibians going extinct to leave crucial roles unfilled in the ecosystem; pests such a mosquitoes and ticks bringing diseases to humans and our domestic animal partners; wild animals invading our cities and suburbs due to deforestation and habitat loss; rare and deadly diseases such as Ebola reaching “pestilence” level proportions that can reach even the shores of America; People all over the world afflicted with severe allergies, immune system deficiencies, and infertility; and again for number seven: ice and fire. Each year we’re faced with more unpredictable weather conditions like colder, drier winters that lead to hotter, wildfire-prone summers. Combine this with the resulting floods, tornadoes, super-storm hurricanes, and we’re ultimately dealing with disasters of increasingly biblical proportions.
But, the good news is that our genius Jewish tradition also gently reminds us of the solution — to treat our environment with loving care. Torah isn’t all about the fire-and-brimstone induced fear of God-delivered natural catastrophes.
Every year we also have the opportunity to celebrate our environment, like the upcoming minor holiday of Tu b’Shvat (this year it falls on January 31). During Tu b’Shvat we honor and acknowledge the birthday of the trees in various ways, and we advocate for the preservation of our forested environment. Giving a Jewish perspective to the celebration of our environment, for example, many Reform congregations across our nation use the opportunity to educate our children and congregants during Tu b’Shvat seders. We teach the Jewish value ofbal tashchit (do not destroy), an ethical principle forbidding the cutting down of fruit trees in order to assist in establishing a siege during wartime. (Deuteronomy 20:19–20)
Upon reading this week’s Torah portion of Va’era, we are reminded that each of us can easily turn into a careless pharaoh of our environment, and on Tu b’Shvat we are given an opportunity to celebrate and think about ways to make our world a better place for our sake, and for the sake of future generations.
So perhaps we can start the New Year by making a resolution to act on behalf of the environment. Can we recycle more? How about supporting E-waste programs, or a local Humane Society? There are so many ways to celebrate Tu b’Shvat, and there are many ways to understand and translate those first seven plagues that the ‘Dynamic Duo’ Moses and Aaron inflicted on a stubborn ruler.
Moses and Aaron had no choice. They had to get their point across using “otot u’moftim” (acts of magic and sorcery), while trying to convince a tyrannical Pharaoh to allow our people to be released from slavery. In this day and age, obviously we need more than signs and miracles. We simply need to understand that all these environmental signs we have been experiencing are a reminder for us to act.”
What will it take for us to finally wake up and understand that if we don’t do something for our environment, and get out of our comfort zone of indulgent living, we will continue to be enslaved to the pharaoh of all pharaohs — apathy?