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In the Time of the Plagues

A couple of years ago, my family and I vacationed in Egypt. In Cairo, we stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, a former palace situated on an island in the Nile. At night, kept awake by the constant din of automobile traffic, we could gaze at the reflection of the lights on that mighty river. In the morning, there it was, just outside the window — the River Nile! We stepped out on the balcony to get a better look at the famous river, took a deep breath at the awesome sight, and then coughed and coughed while our eyes stung from the pollution.

This past Thanksgiving week we visited Hanoi, Vietnam. There the pollution again was palpable. This time the cause was the ubiquitous motor scooters that roar through the city, sometimes with entire families perched precariously upon them. We were told that a decade ago, Hanoi was a bicycle city and Ho Chi Minh City was then a scooter-town. Now Hanoi has scooters and in the south there are cars. Needless to say, the former Saigon has surpassed the northern capital in daily pollution.

It’s the same in Beijing, Bangkok, Los Angeles, Ranipet in India, and Chernobyl in Ukraine — the list grows longer daily. (I cannot imagine what it must be like to share a spot with Chernobyl on a list of “most polluted cities.”) In every case, the culprit is either auto exhaust, industrial pollution or a lethal combination of both. And the effects of the pollution are not just coughing and watery eyes, also but a host of illnesses that make the plagues in Egypt seem all too modern a phenomenon.

This Sabbath, as we read the portion Va’era, we rehearse most of the plagues of Egypt. First the Nile turns to blood. And the plagues continue (in a familiar litany): frogs, lice, swarms, plague, boils, hail. We have to wait until next week for darkness and the coup de grace of slaying of Egypt’s firstborn. In a regular year’s Torah reading, this week we would read a Haftarah from Ezekiel in which evil Pharaoh is described as “the mighty sea-serpent, sprawled in his river, saying, ‘The Nile is mine, I made it!’” (Ezekiel, 29:3) It is precisely this kind of hubris that has led us to pollute the air we breathe, poison the waters we drink, warm the global atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer of our very heaven. We think the earth is ours, and we despoil it for our selfish pleasure. We protest that the science remains uncertain, the evidence unclear. Like Pharaoh, we presume that we created the earth, and continue in our stubborn myopia as the plagues beset us.

This year, we do not read the portion from Ezekiel just quoted, because this Sabbath is also the beginning of the new month of Shevat. We observe the start of the month in which Tu B’Shvat is celebrated — the Rosh Hashanah for trees. Yes, trees, too, commemorate their own Rosh Hashanah. Trees, like humans, are judged on that New Year. And it behooves us to wonder just how well the trees will fare this coming year. Will there be drought? Will there be famine? Will the air choke the trees, too? Will the water poison them? Will they bear fruit? The trees depend on God for the year to come. But the trees depend on us, too, and how we behave toward the earth that sustains them and us.

When the new month begins on the Sabbath, as it does this week, we read a special Haftarah, from the prophet Isaiah. There God says, “The Heaven is My throne and the Earth is My footstool.” (Isaiah, 66:1) God warns humanity, “I called and none responded, I spoke and none paid heed. They did what I deem evil and chose what I do not want.” (Isaiah, 66:4) God is none too happy with our behavior. God asks rhetorically: “Who ever heard the like? Who ever witnessed such events? Can a land pass through travail in a single day?” (Isaiah, 66:8) God might now be wondering about the polar ice-caps melting.

The Haftarah ends with a messianic hope that signals its choice for this special Sabbath of the new moon: “And new moon after new moon, and Sabbath after Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship Me — said the Lord.” (Isaiah: 66:23) We can no longer afford to wait for the messiah; by then it will be much too late. We have to repair God’s earth now, new moon after new moon, Sabbath after Sabbath.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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