Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: He who fulfills one mitzvah acquires for himself one advocate, and he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one accuser. Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against retribution.

Ethics of the Fathers, 4:11


"Your evil does afflict you,” says the prophet. Punishment for wrongdoing is not a Divine "revenge" any more than frostbite is G‑d's "revenge" for a barefoot trek in the snow: it is the natural consequence of one's deeds. Just as the Creator has chosen to run His world in accordance with the laws of physics, so, too, He has instituted a spiritual "natural order." Thus, the fact that good is beneficial and evil is detrimental to their doers is an outgrowth of their essential natures.

Every positive deed on man's part is a realization of his Divine essence and purpose, and thus and intensification of his bond with his Creator. And since the ultimate source of life and bliss is G‑d, the obvious result is a more enhanced flow of sustenance and well-being. On the other hand, the person who transgresses the Divine disavows the very purpose for which G‑d grants him existence and life. So the suffering and afflictions to consequently befall him are the spiritually natural result of his having sabotaged his own link and lifeline to his Divine Source.

Didn't Reach the Ground

Based on this concept of reward and punishment we can better understand the Torah's account of the seventh of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt - the plague of barad, a devastating storm of rain, fire and ice.

Pharaoh had once again reneged on his promise to let the Jews go; the Divine response was to unleash "thunder and hail, and fire which ran down upon the earth...the likes of which there was not in Egypt from when it had become a nation" and which wreaked havoc on the Egyptians, their cattle and their crops.

"And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them: `I have sinned this time; G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are in the wrong. Entreat G‑d that there be no more Divine thunders and hail; and I will let you go....'"

"And Moses went out from Pharaoh, out of the city, and spread out his hands to G‑d; and the thunder ceased, and the hail and the rain did not reach the ground."

Suspended or Vaporized

Our sages have stated that "G‑d desires to uphold the workings of the world as much as possible; nature is dear to Him, and He does not interfere with it unless it is critically necessary." And yet, almost everything about the plague of barad, including the manner in which it ended, was supernatural.

Two sworn enemies, fire and ice, collaborated to create the "hail with fire flaring within it” that rained down on Egypt. And when Moses lifted his arms, the storm ceased - instantaneously. Even the hail and rain that had already begun its descent from the heavens "did not reach the ground."

What happened to these orphaned raindrops and hailstones? A careful reading of the commentaries yields two versions of their fate: (a) they remained suspended in midair; (b) they ceased to exist altogether.

The need for supernatural plagues is self-evident. As G‑d told Moses, "I will multiply My signs and My wonders.... And Egypt will know that I am G‑d." But why the miraculous end to the plague of barad? Why not allow the already falling raindrops to reach their natural groundward course?

Past Revisited

Punishment, as we've noted, is not a Divine revenge, but the spiritually "natural" result of a person's wrongdoing.

The fire and ice that rained down on Pharaoh's Egypt was in punishment for his enslavement of the Jewish people and his repeated defiance of the Divine command, "Let My people go." But when Pharaoh repented his crime, acknowledging his guilt ("G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are in the wrong") and committing himself to its rectification ("I will let you go"), the root cause for the plague of barad no longer was. The dynamics of reward and punishment now dictated that Pharaoh's evil, now repented, would no longer afflict him.

The laws of physics may have dictated the continued descent of the hail and rain already en route. But the laws of physics are but the implementers of a higher nature. For a single hailstone or raindrop to now strike Egypt would have been a violation of the spiritual "natural order" that the Creator has established to govern our reality.

This also explains the two versions as to what happened to those hailstones and raindrops which Pharaoh's repentance disarmed in mid-flight: did they halt in mid-air or did they cease to exist entirely?

Basically, there are two levels of teshuvah (repentance): teshuvah that affects the future, and teshuvah that reaches back into the past.

A person who has acted contrary to his ordained mission in life has turned his back on His Creator. As long as he does not repent his deed, he remains in a state of "estrangement" from the Almighty. But when he expresses real regret for his crime and commits himself henceforth to be faithful to his G‑d, he repairs the damaged relationship; all is forgiven as he turns a new leaf in his life.

This is your basic, forward-effective teshuvah. None of this, however, changes the fact that, prior to his repentance, this individual had been disconnected from his Divine source and his own intrinsic goodness. His evil deed remains a past reality; all he has done is discontinue its negative effects on his life.

But there also is a higher level of teshuvah: a teshuvah which reaches back in time to change the past. This is the teshuvah of a penitent who succeeds in exploiting his past wrongs as an impetus for good, who garners from his spiritual descents the momentum to achieve otherwise unattainable heights. Whose estrangement becomes a source of yearning for His G‑d, a yearning with a depth and intensity that far surpasses anything the spiritually pristine soul can feel. Whose negative past is transformed into positive force.

This is the difference between the two scenarios for the suspended barad. If Pharaoh's repentance was of the first, "from now on" sort, his past evil, and what it has caused, remained in existence. Only its future effects on him were neutralized. The hail and rain remained - only they did not continue their punishment of the now repentant sinner.

But if Pharaoh were capable of achieving the higher level of teshuvah that rectifies the past, the negative cause of the barad would have been retroactively undone. And since it is "your evil that does afflict you," the utter erasure of his evil would have spelled the immediate unbeing all that ever resulted from it, including the physical water, fire and ice that came to afflict its perpetrator.