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The Plague Count

The Plague Count

. . . and how human beings affect their environment


We’ve finished telling the Exodus story, we’re about to sing “Dayenu” and get to the food—and here are Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva arguing over statistics. To be precise, over the plague count in Egypt:

Rabbi Eliezer: 10 × 4 = 40.

Rabbi Akiva: 10 × 5 = 50.

Count the plagues as they occur in the story, and there are ten of them. What on earth are these rabbis arguing about? And the real question: What difference does it make?

The difference is big. Real big. Because the argument is deep. The argument is about just how deeply the human state can affect our environment.

No, I’m not talking about dumping noxious chemicals into the oceans and pumping carbon into the atmosphere. I’m talking about acting unjustly, obeying our hormones rather than our brains, the dollar rather than our souls, and generally abandoning our purpose and role as human beings. That, too, pollutes the air we breathe and the food that nurtures us—with greater toxicity than any other poison.

Words affect the environment. The walls of a home where there is anger reverberate with angry words.

The walls of a home where there is anger reverberate with angry words. Money gained by illicit means is tainted and deleterious to the one that holds it. The air of an office where gossip and slander is spread becomes putrid and suffocating.

The world is your resonance chamber

But how does that work? How can human morals affect the nature of the objects that surround us? What does my warm, personal, inner world have to do with the cold outer world around me?

Everything. Because the entire world outside of you was designed as the stage for the world inside of you. And the world inside of you was designed to transform the world outside of you. The two were born in a single thought of their Creator. And so, the two are intimately intertwined.

The human being, wrote Rabbi Yehudah Moscato, a Kabbalist of the Italian Renaissance, is the soloist of a grand concerto. He plays his part, and then the orchestra plays it back to him—louder, bigger, richer. If he messed up and played with dissonance, that ugly acrimony comes booming back to him, amplified by orders of magnitude. If he plays like a real musician, bringing out the beauty of every note of life, he gets the entire cosmos to play that back in magnificent harmony.

The ancient Egyptians who enslaved us played bad and ugly. As much as we were bonded by their whip, much more so were we imprisoned by the putrid environment they created. We couldn’t get out of there without that environment being cleaned up. Which is why there had to be ten plagues. Ten wash-and-rinse cycles to clean up the stuff the Torah calls tum’ah—the dark, putrid atmosphere of Egypt.

The water turned to blood. The earth turned to lice. The sky became balls of fire and ice. Like a deep cleansing wash, the plagues brought out the malignant poisons from the bowels of environment they had polluted, out to the surface, where they served a purpose—and then vanished.

Wash deep for liberation

How deep did that wash have to go?

Rabbi Eliezer knew that it had to go much deeper than the surface. Deeper than water as it is water. It had to go down to the fundamental nature of the water.

The nature of each thing arises out of its particular balance of four fundamental natures. The ancients called them fire, wind, water and earth. We might call them positive, negative, matter and antimatter. Different words, same idea.

The Egyptians, for example, worshipped the Nile. The water of the Nile had become polluted by human thoughts, words and deeds. Not just the water, but the elements of nature that give rise to water. A plague had to transform that, to reach down to the fundamental nature of that water and purge the contamination at its source.

Rabbi Akiva went yet deeper. At the core of every existing thing lies a spark of its Creator. The quintessence, they call it—the “fifth essence” that has no substance or form, no nature or mass or size or dimensions at all, so that all that one can say about it is that it doesn’t not exist. The quintessence is where Creator breathes life into creation.

And this too, the human being had corrupted through his deeds. This too had to be cleansed, extirpated and rinsed.

That explains a lot. It explains why, immediately after telling us how many hundreds of plagues had befallen the Egyptians (250, to be exact), Rabbi Akiva exclaims, “If that is so, then how many levels upon levels of favors did He do for us!” and bursts into song, singing, “Dai-dayenu, dai-dayenu!”

If He wanted to do us a favor, G‑d could have just ripped us out of there and dumped us in the Promised Land. What is so wonderful and beautiful about plagues, that we sing and thank the Creator for wielding them to destroy His creations?

But now we understand: The plagues liberated us. They didn’t just clean up the stage so we could make our exit. They transformed the world into a place in which freedom was possible, and Torah could now enter.

Today we don’t need plagues. We have better devices.

Today we don’t need plagues to do that. Today we need only spoken words of Torah and beautiful, shiny mitzvahs. Wherever we go, when we say words of Torah, the sound waves we create clean out the atmosphere; and when we do mitzvahs, we transform the very nature of the things around us. Until, may it be very soon, we will have cleansed and purified the entire world.

For such a power of transformation, for such a tool of liberation, we need to sing and give thanks all night and day.

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Yocheved Bournemouth April 15, 2016

Plagues Thank you Rabbi Freeman so clearly and beautifully explained. Reply

Anonymous Santa Clara, CA April 15, 2012

wrtitng about the plagues Thank you for sending me this writing. I always appreciated the messages Chabad sends me . They are inspirational and meaningful.
My deepest appreciation to you

Joan Reply

Avram Brooklyn April 15, 2012

Plagues: Ipuwer Papyrus Thanks, David. This papyrus seems associated with the biblical story, but is open to interpretation. For example, one says that the children of princes are "dashed against walls," which implies that someone went in there and murdered them. What was the mode of death for those firstborn sons anyhow? I never knew.

Overall, I guess I find the idea of God interacting with man difficult to swallow; not to add why such things stopped thousands of years ago. To me, God is vast intelligence, vaguely defined, but is not a being, a character, who can speak with men and make deals and contracts. I think that's man's misinterpretation of inspirations, and perhaps made concrete for societal purposes. And the fact that the world is not 5,000 something years old but in the hundreds of millions, doesn't help much and suggests the anthropomorphic nature of biblical themes. Yet, I try to find meaningful aspects of it, out of a sense of heritage nonetheless. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 5, 2012

we need to do what we are gifted to do or why do tikkun olam? We can know, we are doing what is already saved, but all the same we must act, as saviors, to heal, to support, to succor, to love all that lives and breathes on this planet, and as the inanimate comes from the animate, this too, in caring for our homes, our being, our everything.

Yes, life has a profound inner paradox, and it is built in. But all the same, even in knowing the sparks are already elevated, we do it again, and again.

If it's true, and I know it, that to have saved one life is to have saved a universe, why keep on doing it? We do it, because that's how it is. We are One but need to learn again and again, the wisdom and truth of this beauty.

And so we keep saving, and so we keep moving, through eternity, and when you come to the deepest knowledge, you want to impart this, because it's about LOVE. And the endless iterations of ONE are what we're doing here, and in the OW, of such knowing.

Hag Sameach, and I say, THIS YEAR in JERUSALEM. It's TIME. Reply

David Sydney, Australia April 5, 2012

Plagues There is indeed a really interesting alternate record of the plagues created by an Egyptian scribe from Pharoah's court, named Ipuwer. Just Google "Ipuwer papyrus" to find some references. There is an extraordinary corelation between the Ipuwer Papyrus and Torah tabulated in some of the references. Reply

jasmin April 5, 2012

But aren't all the sparks elevated already, as the Rebbe has said? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 4, 2012

you are right about everything with ONE big exception, and that is, we MUST care for the internal AND external environment, meaning not just how we are with each other, but our relationship to the soil, to the animals, to earth itself. And I will reiterate this. There is a deep and ongoing connectivity with ALL that pollutes, and paying deep and ongoing attention to the toxins we pour into our environment, to industrial pollution, to oil spills, to oil drills, is part of this. That's the "drill" and we need to do this. And this is our deepest man date.

How do I know this? I think my LOVE as expressed on these many pages is a voice, another voice, calling out in the wilderness, that too, comes from a Divine Source. We have Adam's responsibility, to care, to nurture, not parts but the whole, all CREATION and all CREATION sings to us, ONE SONG.

You write with a beauty and a passion for truth, and when I read any exemptions, I am upset, and will voice this as my Divine mandate. We all have a "date", that date. Reply

Avram brooklyn April 3, 2012

Plagues OK. I just re-read it. It is a new idea to me. I think you are saying that the gross level is the 10 plagues as we know it, but the more subtle levels would account for the dispute over number. Is this issue discussed more clearly anywhere (for it would make for a bulky hagaddah)? It takes a while to hear new things sometimes.
On the other hand, I do not believe that a response was given to the more uncomfortable issue of the world responding to what is projected out to it, as in the metaphor of the soloist. How would that account for the universal rejection of the Jews, since you seem to say that the universe reflects the good, or bad, notes we send out? This history is not one any group on the face of the Earth would want. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill April 3, 2012

For Avram Now I see that you haven't read the essay. Reply

Avram Brooklyn April 3, 2012

Plagues Thanks, Rabbi. I thought you had given up on me. Tell me, were there ten plagues or more? Why would this be a question if it is recorded by people who witnessed it? That is, why would we hear that one rabbi says 40 another 50 etc., as if it were not real plagues but rather symbolical language? Is this possibly a myth, a story meant to be taken on a symbolical, poetical way and not actually an historical event? Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, On March 30, 2012

For Avram Outside of the Roman account, there is no record or even a shred of archeological evidence of the destruction of Carthage, the conquest of Normandy and England, or most of the other matters taken for fact in Roman history. Egypt is far further back in time, before anyone other than the Jews had any interest in real history. What's recorded on tombs and monuments is semi-mythological odes to kings and their lineage. On clay tablets from Sumeria, we have accounting of royal courts. It would be very surprising indeed for anyone other than the Jews to record the plagues. Reply

Avram NY March 29, 2012

On Plagues How come there is no record of any plagues, from a historical perspective (not the Torah)? How is it conceivable that such events would not have been recorded by surrounding civilizations as well as by Egypt, given the extremity of the alleged events?

If the Jews are soloists in the symphony of life, to use your image, and get back what they sing out, then explain the Holocaust. And the pogroms. And, and, and. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA March 29, 2012

Multiplying Plagues Dear Rabbi Freeman,
This is a beautiful article. You write of a world which I thought existed a while ago. But there is another reality I have seen lately. You wouldn't believe the revelation I have had if I told you. But seen what I saw, and then, seen every day how most people I have encounter, and speak Word of Torah to them, they do not want to hear it. Therefore, what you state here in this article is a very beautiful thought, but that is not what I see and hear. The hate that I hear towards our brethren, here in US and in Israel, is a very difficult thing to get out of the heart of the majority. I truly believe that there might not be the same plagues of Egypt coming, but there is something stronger coming this time. No one would believe me. Therefore, I just leave it to Hashem to reveal to others what I have seen. All that I can say is that next time will be with fire, which will consume. If people do not repent and turn their hearts to the Living G-d. The Creator of All. Reply

Anonymous Durham, UK March 29, 2012

A sweet song Beautiful! Like a song from the beginning of the word. I enjoyed this so much, it lights me up inside and reminds me of the cleansing attained during meditation if one lets go of clinging to "stuff"; the purification goes deeper and deeper but needs to be done over and over again. In my next life I will be born as a Jew so that I can practice the Mitzvahs and rejoice. I will bring with me the fruits of this life if G_d pleases. Thankyou Reply

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