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.