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    Rivers of blood

    January 22nd, 2023

    The Ten Plagues hit horrifically at the central features of Egyptian life, the economy, the agriculture, the food supply, the transport network, the monarchy, the theology, the class system.

    No wonder the upheaval was so devastating. The targets were all the things that the Egyptians regarded as mighty and divine. Imagine the furore – the great imperial palace was attacked, the Nile became a river of blood, the animals sickened and died. Normal living became impossible.

    Centuries later the Haggadah emphasised an ethical lesson which the rabbis had recommended, the recognition that the Egyptians were human beings and despite their wickedness they deserved a modicum of respect.

    The Ten Plagues, however, were a necessary tug of war which pitted the God of Israel against the gods of Egypt. It was the struggle of power as against puniness. It was proof that those who defy God are themselves defied!

    God & Rav Kook – Va’era

    January 15th, 2023

    The name of the sidra literally means “And I appeared”. Since God has no corporeality or physicality it cannot mean that human beings are able to see God’s appearance. But many things on earth, many aspects of earthly culture, are perceptible refractions of God.

    Rav Kook, the poet-philosopher and chief rabbi of the Holy Land, said that special people can perceive spiritual things wherever they look. The great artists, musicians and writers are spiritually sensitive.

    Rav Kook himself saw spiritual light in great works of art like the Rembrandts at the National Gallery in London, which he visited when he was in England during the First World War.

    No wonder there is criticism of people who do not want Israeli children to learn “secular” subjects; Rav Kook would have said that you can often find the holy in the supposedly unholy.

    Where were the women? – Va’era

    January 15th, 2023

    In its narration of events the Torah tends to focus on the men and does not always indicate the piety and good sense of the women.

    Yet it was because of women’s merits that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b). They did not join in the sin of the making of the Golden Calf (Midrash Tanchuma). On the other hand, when it came to building the Tabernacle, the enthusiasm and generosity of the women were outstanding (Ex. 35).

    What a pity it is that Jewish history does not always acknowledge the greatness and piety of the women.

    Some thinkers argue that women are more naturally spiritual than the men and hence they need less rituals to show their love of God.

    These days the women of the Jewish people are often remarkably committed to religious worship and Torah study.

    Plagues from God

    January 15th, 2023

    The Almighty gave ample warning of the coming plagues (Ex. 8). In the Torah text it says that God would lift His finger in order to bring about the plagues.

    Why not His full hand?

    The references to God’s finger and hand are of course metaphorical (Targum Onkelos makes this clear by adjusting the terminology to “a plague from before the Lord”), but even so we wonder why in acknowledging the Divine might the Egyptian magicians only say “finger” and not “hand”.

    One possibility (Ramban) is that the magicians were belittling God and telling the Egyptians not to take Him too seriously.

    Another approach is to say that God was not employing His full might against Egypt. It was bad enough for Egypt to receive His finger of punishment: how much worse it would have been if He had come down more harshly and used His full power.

    “Acts of God” — is it all just a cosmic joke?

    January 11th, 2023

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 10 January, 2023.

    COVID-19 has shaken the whole world. In some places it seems to have diminished, but the memory of the pain and suffering will probably never completely recede. No one is certain what brought on the pandemic. We wonder whether to blame God, or is that too easy and conventional? However, if we don’t blame God, is there anyone else we can accuse?

    Disasters seem to come in two forms: “natural” and “moral”. Moral disasters — for example, the Holocaust — are exceedingly hard to cope with, but we know that they are the horrible result of humans using their free will to wreak harm. Such tragedies can rightly be ascribed to the evil side of human nature. In that sense, however, it is hard to consider that the novel coronavirus is caused by human beings. About whether humans in Wuhan or anywhere else bear a share of responsibility, the jury is still out.

    “Natural” disasters include the three Fs — flood, fire, and famine — as well as tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics, which seem to be caused by fault lines in the structure of the universe. We tend to call the three Fs “acts of God”. Our problem is how to take this strange phrase, how to handle its theology, and whether to say the tragedies were caused by God in some direct or residual sense. It is a form of the “God of the gaps”, suggesting that everything which is hard to explain can be attributed to God.

    In some way, of course, absolutely everything that happens is — in the final analysis — traceable to God. This means that somehow or other, God initiates all that transpires, both evil and good. But it is doubtful whether it is semantically logical to speak in these terms. It is preferable to set limits to the phrase, restricting “acts of God” to events and experiences of a certain type. As my legal friend Andrew Samuel says, we should not be in a hurry to apply the term to anything outside the legal sphere — in particular, the law of contract. In a day-to-day legal context, the term must be restricted to events of such an extraordinary nature that they could not have been foreseen, anticipated, or provided against.

    The phrase “act of God” is an idiom, not to be taken literally. It cannot be applied across the board. It cannot be understood as saying that God is to blame for highly uncommon events. But if we cannot directly blame God, can we still say He bears some responsibility? If not, it seems we are trapped in a battle between two forces — maybe a struggle between light and darkness — when sometimes one force wins, sometimes the other, leaving us, as Arnold Toynbee put it, victims of a cosmic joke.

    This seems to imply that God has been defeated and pushed out of the cosmos. Maybe He has lost patience with His Creation and has decided to withdraw from history and abandon all concern for the world, which contradicts the traditional religious doctrine that He is in charge and the world is not ownerless — in Hebrew, hefker.

    Biblical thinking (see, for instance, Isaiah 45:7) is adamant that God initiates both good and evil. Even what we perceive as evil has a place in His plan. Everything is described in the Book of Genesis as “good” or “very good” — which is to say, stable and firm, part of the pattern of a functioning universe.

    What, then, can we say about the pandemic? The following are some of the theories, followed by possible answers:

    That God is punishing us for our sins? This is too harsh. Ancient humans attributed suffering to sin, but this is too simplistic and cannot be applied to every tragedy.

    That the Creator has lost patience with His Creation? But the Bible records His promise not to destroy the world (Genesis 8–12).

    That God has no control over the disaster and lets things run wild? Impossible. Surely He wants the best for His world. Surely He is powerful enough to preserve His Creation. Surely the Hebrew sages are right that God is Shaddai, the One who knows when to say Dai — “enough!”

    That humans are at least partly responsible because they didn’t care enough for the created world? True, humans should and could have worked harder on the universe, but why insult humans by absolving God of blame?

    That we cannot explain the evil but can alleviate the pain? This gives us something to do in time of trouble, but the real problem remains.

    That God shares our pain? Harold Kushner says that in times of calamity, God sits in mourning with us. Sometimes God has to confess, “I too am grieving.”

    That it’s not a perfect world? We have no right to expect Him to have created a perfect world, but when the Bible says that whatever God made was good, nothing is said about even the minor defects.

    That there is more good than evil in the cosmos? True, we should count our blessings, but can we let God entirely off the hook?

    That there exists more evil than good? Doubtful, since we see goodness of many kinds though we cannot compute their proportion of reality.

    That we have to keep believing, praying, and hoping for redemptive answers? True, but the Psalmist is right to ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

    One day we will come closer to an answer and find out whether pandemics are natural or moral disasters. In the meantime, we must battle the problem with vaccines and other medical means, and try to limit the pandemic’s economic fall-out. In the meantime, God must assure us — in the words of Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev — that our suffering is for His sake.