Friday, November 27th, 2020

Would We Recognize the Ten Plagues Today? by Gidon Rothstein

August 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Education, New Posts

Thinking of the question raised in the title of this essay, we might instinctively answer, of course, because we’ve seen this movie so many times before. Were Moses to come today and tell us to do—well, whatever, really, but let’s leave it at abandoning the exile—we’d obviously do it.

But that’s a mirage, because it wouldn’t happen so obviously; it would happen more something like this:

It wouldn’t be Moshe Rabbenu who came to announce our need to leave behind not only our residences but our whole way of approaching the world (as my father a”h used to say each year at the Seder—we were freed not only physically and spiritually from Egypt, but culturally, leaving behind their worldview along with everything else).  As my teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik used to point out, the Raavad (or other great rabbis) were never born; Avremel (or Moishele) were born, and later became the Raavad, Rambam, Ramban, or whoever.

So this prophet wouldn’t be someone instantly recognizable as the greatest leader of our history.  It would, instead, be a member of a prominent Jewish family, perhaps with a sibling who was a leader of the Jewish community, but who had spent years out of the country because he had run afoul of the law.  And, by the way, we should assume that while some people would recognize he had been right in whatever supposed crime he had committed, others would be equally confident that he was a criminal, that the government had been right to prosecute him.

So after years of hiding, with little or no contact with the US Jewish community, he’d come back one day, with the news that God was going to free us of all our attachments to the United States.  Here, the analogy breaks down somewhat, because the US is a benevolent country, completely unlike Egypt; if we focus instead on how the US and the West in general has enslaved much of the Jewish community to its worldview—and this not by coercion, but by how attractive and sensible that worldview seems—we can get back to the hypothetical.

To be a little clearer on what I mean, this Moses might come to free us of our mistaken attachment to Western sexual ethics, to the Western view of the sanctity of life (in which abortion and euthanasia are both reasonable possibilities), and to the extreme Western version of devotion to science, in which scientific principles regularly deny God’s power or ability to intervene or abrogate what are deemed laws of Nature (an attitude, incidentally, that carries over into other disciplines—historians, for example, will not only deny the role of Providence as a practical matter of making it impossible to prove anything; they will, many of them, deny it axiomatically).

So Moses and his brother—whose judgment will rapidly become questionable, as it becomes clear just how much he is being influenced by the returned prodigal—would manage to get in to see the President, without authorization.  Their success in that, of course, would be the result of an unexplained breakdown in security, not because of any higher Power supporting them.

Once in the Oval Office, this Moses type would convey his message to the President, with the warning that God would visit terrible punishments should that message be ignored. To prove his point, his brother would throw his walking stick on the floor, to have it turn into a snake.

But in the twenty-first century, one of the President’s science advisors would just have discovered that a certain species of snake, when handled by a threatening predator, becomes stiff as a staff until the danger passes.  Racing back to his office, he, too, would produce a stick that turns into a snake on release.

So Moses would threaten the water supply (and, miraculously, the President would not jail him for making the threat); when, soon after, e coli or other dangerous materials turned up in the water, making it undrinkable, the President’s security analysts would deny the miracle, demonstrating numerous holes in our water security, so that any madman could do that.

Then, perhaps, nothing would happen for a few weeks (or months), but one day, this Moses would return, announcing that frogs are going to start dying all over the world.  When that prediction started coming true (as, incidentally, is happening today), scientists would be puzzled, but would offer numerous hypotheses—none of which could yet be established conclusively, but they would be completely confident that more study would certainly eventually offer a fully natural explanation.

If you’ve read with me to this point, I suspect you reject the hypothetical as simple-minded, for one of two main reasons.  Either you think that it’s silly to think such a thing could happen today (as if to say that God only had the power back then to produce such changes of nature), or because you feel confident we’d get it this time.

Aside from the fact that we’ve had numerous problems with drinking water in the last little while—not to mention more than one major natural disaster, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, with no little loss of life—I was struck by Bergdorf Goodman’s recent announcement that they were going to start patrolling their stores with specially trained dogs, who would sniff out any bedbug infestations that might occur. This happened, I believe, because another chain store had had to close down a store to try to deal with their own bedbug problem, as have some high-end hotels.

Now, bedbugs are not lice—the customary translation of כנים—so maybe this is totally different.  And perhaps readers will point out that we didn’t have a prophet announce these plagues ahead of time.  Perhaps those are, in fact, crucial differences, and none of the recent events (even just in the US—9/11, Hurricane Katrina, raging wildfires, mudslides, flooding of several rivers, contamination of various water supplies, wildlife disasters, economic dislocation of a once in a generation variety, and, now bedbug infestations—not to mention tsunamis, earthquakes, and mudslides in other parts of the world) have any connection to God.  Although I cannot resist noting that bedbugs would be a particularly poetic way for God to react the US’ leading role in rejecting God’s morality around an activity that mostly takes place in bed.

But I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, so I cannot say any of this with any confidence.  Rather, I am here to ask a question one step more theoretical: If God decided to communicate with us in a time when prophecy had not yet been restored, and God’s message was that we needed to question fundamental assumptions we make about the culture we inhabit, how would God communicate that? Good times wouldn’t do it, because it is in the nature of good times to feed on themselves, for people to assume that things are going largely well, that God is largely happy with us (otherwise, why give us good times?).

Denying the possibility that God is communicating with us by sending more difficult times, we close off, it seems to me, all God’s options for getting that message across.  In only the last decade, many Orthodox Jews, including leading rabbis, have rejected the possibility that cataclysms (let alone personal struggles, whether economic or medical) are God’s call to radically change our ways.

Is that really only because no prophet said so ahead of time? After all, plenty of thinkers, Jewish or otherwise, have tried to encourage us to think in such ways; they have not predicted the events, but have offered interpretations after the fact, only to be ridiculed.  And ridiculed, I note, not just because such people give often offer overly unidimensional, unsophisticated, unnuanced, or otherwise flawed readings of events.  Repeatedly, I encounter seemingly Orthodox Jews who reject the possibility that major natural problems—including bedbug infestations—come from God, for whatever reason.

And if you reject that out of hand, is it really true that having a prophet named Moses—who only later would become Moshe Rabbenu– say ahead of time that this is why it is happening would be enough to change your mind?

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