The actions and people that brought about the plagues teach us not only sensitivity towards people but also towards the environment.
The third plague, lice, is brought about by striking the earth; the lice are seen as emerging from the earth. Here again, Rashi says, it would have been wrong for Moses, whom, earlier, the earth had protected, when he used it to bury the body of the Egyptian he had killed, in an attempt to keep the crime a secret. It is for these reasons of propriety, of a sensitivity to and recognition of the debt which Moses owed to the water and the earth, that Aaron is chosen, rather than Moses, to bring about these plagues.
A Silly Midrash?
What do you think of this Midrash? When I was a kid, I thought it was silly, in that the Midrash seems to ascribe to the water and the earth feelings and sensitivities. What difference, I thought, could it possibly make to these inanimate objects whether or not Moses is an ingrate? What do they care if they are turned into blood, or spawn frogs or lice? Could they possibly care who does this to them?
Later on, I realized that, to make sense, the Midrash does not really depend on the earth and the water caring how Moses treated them, or whether he expressed the proper amount of gratitude to them or not. It was a parable, a way to teach us about sensitivity and gratitude in general. Aaron, and not Moses, was chosen to smite the water and the earth in order to teach us that one should be sensitive to the way one interacts with others.
We all have a history, a past, full of interactions with other people, which we should be sensitive to, aware of, and act in accordance with. If someone has been good to us, we should remember it, and act accordingly. The Midrash is not really about the earth and the water, they are just examples of how we should interact with those who have been good to us, how we should behave towards those who have helped us.
The Rabbis, in effect, are saying: "Look, if God, Moses, and Aaron showed this kind of sensitivity to the debt that Moses owed the earth and the water, who DON'T have any feelings, shouldn't we be at least as sensitive with the way we act towards people, who DO have feelings? Shouldn't we learn from this story how to be grateful, and sensitive, and loyal?"
But now I have another way of looking at this Midrash. I was in New York last December and the temperature there was 70 degrees. And, once again, I thought, as I am sure many of you have over the past years: "This is it. Global warming. Summer in December. Greenhouse effect. Ice caps melting. The end of the world as we know it."
These thoughts, and many others like them, which I, along with many others, have been having for a while now, bring me to realize that we do owe the earth, and the water, the kind of sensitivity shown here by God, Moses, and Aaron. The earth and the water do protect us, give us life, sustain us, just as they did Moses.
Rather than being silly, as I thought when I was a kid, it would be completely appropriate, and wise, for us to develop the kind of sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and delicacy of feeling towards them which the Torah indicates here.
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