It has been said that nature has a way of echoing human emotions. This concept, which is used as a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” finds itself powerfully expressed in our sedra of Va’eira, which describes seven of the 10 “makkot” or plagues that the Almighty rains upon the Egyptians.
Interestingly we find that the number seven in Kabbalistic literature represents “teva,” nature. In a sense we are treated here to a drama in which God turns nature on its head as a sign not only of His wondrous and powerful ways, but in divine protest over the egregious acts of the Egyptian people who were more than complicit with their Pharaoh in oppressing our Israelite ancestors. In many ways, in their slavish service to the gods of their day, they abused and misappropriated the forces of nature. All questions of theodicy aside, which are deserving of a separate study and analysis, one can find in each plague an element of justice done, or “middah k’neged middah.”
Indeed, “mei-oz yatzah matok” – from the bitter can come something sweet – and it is possible to mine from the expanse of destruction, lessons by which to live and improve our human condition. Consider as an example the seventh plague, that of hail. The Torah text writes that “there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been seen in the entire land of Egypt (Exodus 9:24).” The Hebrew words “v’eish mitlakachat b’toch ha-barad” (“fire flaming within the hail”) are described in Rashi’s commentary to represent “a miracle within a miracle” in that there was fire and frozen water mixed together. And to fulfill the will of their Maker, “asu shalom beineihem,” “they made peace with each other.” In order to please their Creator they defied the laws of nature and co-mingled and worked together to create this phenomenon of nature.
Certainly what was true of hail then is true of hail today. It represents an unusual mixture of opposites in nature. This past summer I drove through a hail storm the likes of which I had never seen before and which my son managed to capture on video. Frozen balls of ice rained down on my car with a fiery ferocity. Atmospheric antonyms, then and now, manage to somehow climatically coexist. And while there is for sure despair in the devastation, there might still be a moral lesson to harvest from this act of God, namely the challenge to create in our midst, under better and more optimal circumstances, unlikely alliances; to foster partnerships for the greater good of humankind rather than sow the seeds of discord and acrimony. It is sad that it takes tragedy to oftentimes bring otherwise disparate factions together. It is unfortunate that society, and Jewish life in particular, is too often defined by what I call “the Olive Oil Syndrome.” Just as the oil used to kindle the Eternal Lamp in the Temple of old was beaten from the olives, history has repeatedly demonstrated that we shine best when pressed and under duress.
Perhaps the Almighty, in this seventh plague, seeks to challenge us to similarly achieve the unnatural and unthinkable; to fulfill His will in a coalescence of conscience and concern.
Neither the fire nor the ice lost their natural properties and separate identities in the plague of hail but they managed for that moment and cause to effect a merger of wills. How and when to suspend our hard earned principles and at times parochial interests for the greater good of community and to please the will of our Maker remains a formidable challenge given the particularity of personalities and intensity of individual interests. But the gains to society when opportunities for growth and goodness loom so large on the horizon should beckon us to try harder and more often.