How do you pick which plague to send first? When God decides to afflict the Egyptians with ten plagues, in order to force them (but really, just hard-hearted Pharaoh) to let the slaves go free, how was the sequence of plagues decided? In fact, how were these ten chosen from among all other things that could be done? We aren't really told why blood came first, then frogs, and so on, through the Death of the First Born, which leaves us a lot of room to speculate. And in doing so, I think we come to realize something essential about Ancient Egyptian society... and about our priorities in life today.
Last week, we read about the first seven plagues, which ranged from causing a serious nuisance (blood, frogs, and lice), to incredible pain (boils and hail), to crippling the economy (death of livestock and hail again). This week we add the final three, and it's interesting to consider why these are so terrible as to come last. Working backwards, the final plague,
death of all first-born Egyptians, is understandably the blow that seals the deal. Plague #9 is interesting, because plunging Egypt into darkness was not only terrifying and paralyzing, but it challenged the essence of Egyptian theology. Ra, the sun-god of Egypt was supposed to be the head honcho, and Pharaoh was the human embodiment of Ra on earth. So to strike them with darkness completely annihilated all semblance of Ra's power, and humiliated Pharaoh.
But what about plague #8, locusts? How are they any different than the lice or insects from earlier plagues? Well, according to the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, "The locust swarm is one of the worst scourges. An area of one square kilometer can contain 50 million such insects; in a single night they can devour 100,000 tons of vegetation." We're no longer talking inconvenience or even physical
pain; this is the total devastation of an agricultural society. What else are people going to live off? As city-dwellers, it is hard for us to appreciate how shattering such a plague could be for a farming community. But here's where we transition to modern times. It is worth noting that even though we don't have swarms of locusts descending upon us, access to food and the threat of starvation is still a major fear all around the world, and even in many parts of the US. Researchers talk about something they call food deserts, and I urge you to click on that link to learn more about this essential concept. God caused Egypt to become a literal food desert in our parasha, but today's food deserts are often man-made.
Next week, at Ohev Shalom, we will be hosting as our Scholar in Residence, Dr. Jordan Rosenblum, who will be speaking to us about all manner of food-related topics. His titles include, "The Goy of Cooking - Jews and non-Jews in the Rabbinic Kitchen" and "The Jew as Other, and the Other White Meat." I am truly hoping that this weekend
sparks a new debate about food, sustainability, and nutrition, both within the congregation and in relation to our wider community. Starvation is indeed a horrific plague, high even on God's list of punishments to reserve for dire circumstances. Many people are starving, or are seriously under-nourished today. It is, therefore, tempting to ask, is it God's fault or ours? Yet perhaps it's time to put that debate aside, and start focusing instead on how we can make a difference, and how we can get rid of some proverbial 'locusts' right here in our area.