Friday, January 30, 2009

Silver Lining / Chocolate Covered:
A Bo’ DvarTorah

By the beginning of this week's parasha, פרשת בֹּא, we've seen
seven plagues so far —
seven punishments
seven challenges
to the authority of the king of Egypt
and to the power of Egypt's gods.

And finally,
after the seventh plague —
after his land
is rocked
and shaken
by bombs of hail
falling from heaven,
it looks like פרעה
is finally
going to give in.

משה
merely has to threaten
to bring the next plague,
the plague of ארבה,
and the image
of swarms of locusts
covering Egypt
like a voracious insectoid snowfall
sends פרעה's advisors
quaking in their sandals.

And they beg him,
הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַֿע כִּי אָבְֿדָֿה מִצְרָיִם!؟
“Don't you yet realize
that Egypt is lost?!”

So פרעה is about to give in
to God and משה's demands —
but when he finds out
that they want him
to release the entire Israelite community —
the old, the young, men, women,
and their animals too —
for this ‘religious festival’ in the wilderness —
he changes his mind
once again.
And פרעה threatens them in return,
warning the representatives of בני־ישראל
that if he ever were to let them go,
or kick them out,
רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶֿדֿ פְּנֵיכֶֿם
“be aware that רעה—”
seemingly ‘evil’,
“—is against you!”

רש"י, quoting a מדרש,
offers the possibility
that רעה is the name
of an ill-omened star
that heralds blood and death;
similarly, Cassuto,
extrapolating on another מדרש,
identifies רעה
with the Egyptian sun-god Ra —
as if פרעה's silver lining
in this horrific plague experience
is that even if
he will eventually need to give in,
he's confident
that out in the barren desert,
his divine burning sun
would have the last laugh.
So פרעה refuses,
and the locusts come.

They come on an east wind,
חֵילִי הַגָּדֿוֹל
‘God's great army’
as the prophet יואל would describe them
hundreds of years later,
enough ארבה to cover the land;
in thick swarms that cast darkness over Egypt
as if to foreshadow the next plague,
חֹשֶׁךְֿ itself.

And as predicted,
the locusts eat all the food —
all the fruit and all the grain,
anything which had been lucky enough
to survive the earlier onslaught of ברד.

פרעה is seized by a momentary attack of conscience,
admits his sin,
and God reverses the wind,
blowing the ארבה out of Egypt,
back where they came from.

Why does God do that?
Why sweep the locusts away?
Why not leave them there,
to cover מצרים in rotting, stinking piles
like the aftermath of the frogs?
If it was good enough for צפרדע, why is ארבה any different?

When I was in sixth grade,
my נביא teacher, [name withheld for internet purposes],
told us a story
that her father told her
about growing up a little boy in Yemen.

Whenever there was a locust swarm,
the locusts would eat all the food;
and the people, left with nothing else,
would eat the locusts.
They would hold large baskets
under the trees,
and hit the trunks with sticks —
and the lazy, satisfied locusts
would drop from the branches
into the baskets below.

In מדרש רבה,
רבי יוחנן explains similarly
that when the ארבה came to מצרים,
the Egyptians rejoiced —
there was nothing left to eat,
and so they were very happy
to eat the locusts.

They gathered them
into pots and barrels
to cook and pickle them for food.

And then God said,
‘No. What do you think you are doing?!
You may not eat my plague!
This is a punishment,
not a smorgasbord.
This is my army of retribution,
not a crunchy snack.’

And so,
even the locusts
in the cooking pots
and the pickling barrels
hopped up
and flew away
on the west wind.

Part of being human
is confronting adversity
and making the best
of bad situations.

But being human
is only worth it
if it means
being humane.

When the ארבה were swept away,
God was telling the Egyptians
that there is no silver lining to this dark cloud.
Don't look for it. You don't deserve it.
I won't let you have it.

There is only one way
to make the best
of this bad situation,
and you already know what it is —
שַׁלַּח אֶתֿ עַמִּי וְיַעַבֿדֻֿנִי
“release my nation
so that they may worship me”.

Letting the Egyptians eat the ארבה
would have softened the blow of the מכה,
but it wouldn't have solved
the underlying problem.

Eating the ארבה,
as the saying goes,
would have been treating the symptom,
not the disease —
and in the end,
it took מכת בכורות,
the most drastic kind of amputation
to heal the cruel, merciless disfigurement
in Egypt's soul.

3 Comments:

Blogger Elie said...

I proposed a similar explanation as to why locusts are considered kosher, when this is so out of synch with the general pattern/rule for permissible creatures. Namely, that when there's nothing else left to eat *because* of the locusts, we can at least eat them!

2/09/2009 11:08 AM  
Anonymous sister miryam said...

And then God said,
‘No. What do you think you are doing?!
You may not eat my plague!
This is a punishment,
not a smorgasbord.
This is my army of retribution,
not a crunchy snack.’


ROTFL
i <3 god
zeh eli ve'anvehu!

2/09/2009 12:59 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

sister:

a friend of mine said it sounds like the kind of thing he would tell his toddler — "what are you doing? put that thing down! that doesn't go in your mouth!"

2/09/2009 1:42 PM  

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