Jewish and world history are full of other terrible experiences – ten times ten and more besides – and unlike the list in the Haggadah they did not merely befall the ancient Egyptians.
Jews as Jews suffered constant violence and villainy, unceasing degradation and destruction, persistent persecution and pogroms, continual external and internal problems. Humanity – including the Jews – was regularly engulfed by disasters, demons and demagogues. Can you imagine what depressing responses I always received over the years, when I asked classes of pupils to nominate the ten plagues of the modern world?
There are two major categories of evil occurrences: “natural” events, called in English “acts of God”, and events which are eruptions of moral evil. The two categories are intertwined. The first group includes earthquakes and illness, and though we tend to blame them on God they have a moral dimension – not just the question of how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve the world and eliminate or at least diminish the external events.
Though the beginning of the Biblical Book of Job sees the Adversary going about causing mischief, the human mind feels affronted at the thought that God could apparently condone such undeserved suffering. Whatever the evil we are talking about, in the end it has to trace back to the Creator.
Why did God not make a perfect world that has no defects? Why does God not step in and control the Creation before people get hurt? Why does God not frustrate the designs of the human beings who target their fellow creatures?
It’s the oldest and hardest question of all; no-one has found the final answer.
One approach is to say that God has no obligation to create a perfect universe, but in creating man He has provided a means of mending the torn fabric.
A second approach is to say that history has to take the long view, and in the end things will gradually improve. Possibly some of the worst curses have already gone or reduced, though the global evils of the past century – especially the Holocaust, which did not just happen but was deliberately unleashed by man’s malignity – tend to challenge this assertion.
Perhaps one can say that to do good is harder than to do evil. It is not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness is necessarily valid, but that for man to slide into evil-doing is easier than to choose the path of righteousness.
Rav Soloveitchik is adamant that one cannot blithely intellectualise the issue by looking for a theory that explains the events: none of this relieves the hurt of real human beings torn apart by real pain. But a range of modern Jewish thinkers joins him in distinguishing between explanations and responses. We might not (yet) have found the explanation for evil, but we have a responsibility to respond and to try to handle the suffering.
In the Haggadah we are told that the plagues arrive in every generation, but the Holy One Blessed be He, matzileinu miyyadam, “delivers us from their power”. We would like to feel that God stretches out His hand and scoops us out of the inferno; that after all is what the Torah assures us saved our forefathers from Egypt. But if that is not what always happens, there is some comfort in the thought that what God does is to allow us to rise above the suffering, robbing the evil of its power and giving us the moral victory.