Parshat Vaera: Exodus 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.
Parshat Vaera is the most theological parshah, as God reveals Godself to the world at the burning bush and then through the first seven plagues upon Egypt: bloody water, frogs, lice, mixture (of insects or wild animals), livestock pestilence, boils and hail.
The Spanish rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255–1340), explains that God is “the hand that directs all of the phenomena of the world which exercise their influence on our lives in one form or another.” Our theological error, he argues, is when we change “all” to “some.” It’s not that God causes some things and not others: God is the system of interconnected causes and effects. God is the great ecosystem in which we dwell, and Vaera dramatizes how the system behaves.
Today, there are several explanations of the plagues. In one hypothesis, an aberrant El Niño initiates the chain reaction of the plagues. In another, a torrential overflow floods the Nile with reddish silt, flagellates and anthrax spores. Another says it began with a red algae plume. The theories all agree on one thing: Each successive “plague” is part of a chain reaction that plays out within ecological systems. An oxygen-deprived Nile causes death and frog exodus. Rotting frog carcasses attract vermin and their lice, then fly swarms, followed by cattle disease and so on.
In our day, we have learned that viruses like HIV, the H1N1 swine flu, the rodent hantavirus and COVID-19 originate when humans encroach on the habitat of wild animals (plague 4) usually to raise cattle and swine for meat leading to the communication of wild animal virus to rodents or livestock (plague 5) and then to humans.
Recognizing God as the system of interconnection in which we dwell is to recognize that our actions produce chain reactions. Denying God is to act as if the outcomes of our actions go maybe one step and then stop and that we are entitled to our short-sightedness.
Do human beings really deny the existence of chain reactions within large systems? Actually, yes, all the time. For instance, people continue to use plastics that are not recycled without thought to its consequences. As long as they don’t see immediate consequences, people do not see a reason to change their behavior. This is what it means that Pharaoh’s heart continues to harden. As soon as one plague recedes, Pharaoh goes back to business as usual in denying God. We do this all the time.
Torah is teaching us that we have the special gift of foreknowledge, of understanding our interconnection in the system recognizing that every action, or inaction, has a ripple effect on the system and on the future.
Rabbi Nadav Caine is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor. His podcast ”Judaism for the Thinking Person” is widely available.