Parashat Vaera

The Stick that Exacerbates the Plagues

Like the Egyptians devastated by the arrival of the plagues, we become concerned only when environmental degradation reaches our back door.

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It is in these questions that we uncover the nexus of the two messages of the Midrash. The narrowness of the Egyptians' vision is what enables their complicity in the plague. In the same way, we focus on cleaning up the oil in the bay because it helps us feel like we're making things better, even as it distracts us from the difficult truth of our own complicity in ecological degradation.

We may be concerned and conscientious people. Some of us recycle, some contribute to environmental causes, some of us reduce our carbon footprint. Yet the Midrash pushes all of us to acknowledge that we, too, are responsible. Our limited vision, like that of the Egyptians, is the stick that exacerbates the plague. Indeed, who in this fossil fuel-based society is not complicit in the stink? Who does not add more frogs to the pile? 

Like the Egyptians devastated by the arrival of the plagues, we become concerned only when the plague, the spill, reaches our back door. But the frogs, the environmental damage which we've inadvertently created, are a shared plague, and all of us are implicated. Anything short of a change in fundamental perspective, a humanity-wide recognition that we share a single fragile ecosystem, constitutes another futile attempt to beat the creature back into the river.

If we look upstream, however, to find the source of the plague, we will find there not some supernatural curse, but ourselves, sheepishly putting the enormous frog in the water. If we choose to, we could spare ourselves the Egyptian's slow process of learning through suffering. We could demonstrate our understanding that we do not own the world. If we learn that lesson, perhaps our descendants will be able to enjoy the Bay as the Creator meant it to be.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.