Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bumper Sticker Theology - Reflections on Parashat Bo 5774

A bumper sticker caught my eye the other day. It joyously proclaimed the bumper stickee to be at "One With the Earth." 

Things that make you go hmm...What does it really mean to be at "One With The Earth"? If you're literally One With The Earth, you've achieved ambient temperature, taken the dirt nap, are pushing up daisies, etc. (But they drive a car, so they can't be dead. Are zombies One with the Earth?) Hmmm...Anyway, it probably means living in synchronicity with the Earth, maybe rising at dawn and sleeping at dark...nope, that would be One with the Sun. How do you apply for "Earth-Onedness"? Is there a test? Written or oral? Is it graded on a curve? (Hopefully it's a self-test.) The questions just keep coming.

And that, in turn, got me thinking about this week's parasha (naturally)

In Parashat Bo we read of the final three plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt, of the first mitzvot commanded by Gcd to the Jews, and of the final preparations before emancipation. 

There is a very rich wellspring of commentary on the ten plagues, making sense of the whys and the wherefores, insights on their specific order, how the punishments befitted the crimes, and how each plague exposed a specific Egyptian deity to ridicule and abuse, and more. 

But apparently this brilliant body of commentary is not enough, for I am going to intrepidly suggest an understanding of the ten plagues based upon the above-mentioned bumper sticker.

These are the ten plagues: 
1. Starting with the Nile, all the water in Egypt turns to blood;
2. Frogs come up from the Nile, infesting all of Egypt;
3. Lice;
4. Rampaging wild animals;
5. Animal fever, which kills off the horses, mules, camels, sheep and cattle;
6. Boils;
7. Fiery hail;
8. Mega locust attack;
9. Darkness; and
10. The death of every first-born Egyptian.

The first two plagues are grounded in water - they both start in the Nile River.

The next three are grounded in earth. Moses and Aaron are commanded to hit the 'dust of the earth' to begin the plague of lice. (Exodus 8:12) Plagues Four and Five focus on land animals.

The next two are grounded in fire. Moses and Aaron are commanded to take furnace ashes and throw them into the air to begin the plague of boils. (Exodus 9:8) And the hail was famously fire wrapped in ice.

The next two plagues are grounded in air. The locust swarms attacked from the air and were so dense that they blotted out the sun. And darkness speaks for itself. 

Leaving the most horrific plague - death - for last.

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. The four ancient elements.

Pharaoh steadfastly rejects the Divine Command to release the Jewish People from bondage. Like every anti-semite before or since, his beef is not with the Jewish People per se, but with what - and whom - we represent. Pharaoh's fight was with Gcd.

And in response, the A-lmighty says (as it were): "If you stand in opposition to Me, then you will find that all of nature, my entire created universe, will stand in opposition to you: water, earth, fire, air. And if you persist in your rebellion, you make yourself the enemy of Life itself (the Tenth Plague)."

We are taught that every aspect of the universe, animate and inanimate, serves Gcd in its own unique way. Dogs bark, cats meow, wolves bay at the moon, and dolphins click. "Fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind all fulfill His word." (Psalm 148)  Even the celestial orbs praise Gcd, oscillating in their orbits (and the oscillations make them - literally - hum. Re-read Psalm 19:2). 

Of all Gcd's creations, only humans have the power to disobey Gcd.  But as Pharaoh learned to his detriment: when we choose that path, the universe becomes our enemy. We're like the one rogue car, driving the wrong side of the busy superhighway of life.

To be as one with a universe that serves Gcd, we too have to serve Gcd. We accomplish this, not by reducing our carbon footprint, driving hybrids or recycling, but by subordinating our will to Gcd's Will; living with the recognition that whatever I want to do at any given moment in time is less important that what Gcd wants me to do with that moment.

What is Gcd's Will? Open the Torah, study the laws. Like the old spaghetti sauce ad, it's all in there. That's how we achieve genuine synchronicity, balance and inner peace.

So on the whole, I'd rather be one with the Creator of the Earth than with the earth itself. 

Now, if we could only figure out how to recycle poopik lint or the green effluent of little children's noses, we'd be set...

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. I think I would debate about the inclusion of fire. While it is possible for fires to start on their own, the fire that you associate with Boils & Hail, I would associate more with AIR rather that FIRE.

    As you mentioned "Moses and Aaron were commanded to take the furnace ashes and throw them into the air." So first of all, the furnace was a creation of man in this instance, rather then created from the almighty. Also, the ashes were then thrown in the "air."

    When it comes to Hail, the Hail mixed with Ice & Fire, came from heaven threw the air.

    One could also say that when it comes to fire, oxygen (air) is needed to produce it.

    Also. if we look to the creation and sustainability of man - G-d made man from the dust of the earth, and water and air are needed for survival. Is fire?

    So, I think that maybe it is just WATER, GROUND, & AIR, that we could say are from nature, and rule out the FIRE in the instance of the plagues. Which also are the aspects of nature that are used in the creation of man, where as fire is not. Does fire really play a role in the elements of nature?

    Just a thought.

  2. Hi Jon,

    You make a very good point, the Torah doesn't say that Hashem explicitly created fire the way the Torah describes the other three. But I hope you'll agree that that doesn't take away from my ikar point.

    The four (Aristotelian) elements are mentioned in the Zohar, and quoted by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (Emunot V'Deyot, introduction, section 5 and first essay, section 3), Rabbi Judah HaLevi (The Kuzari, third essay, section 21:60), Maimonides, and the Maharal (Sefer Be'er HaGolah, fifth essay). Maimonides, in particular, often used the theory (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 3:10)

    Also, some meforshim understand the Arba Minim to represent each one of the four, as well as the threads of the parochet.

  3. As always, I pleasure to read. And for us lay people, the comments left by others, add an even greater opportunity for thought and contemplation.