Thanks When Thanks Are Due

A midrash on the 10 plagues reminds us to recognize any good that has been done for us.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

A careful reading of the Torah narrative would quickly persuade us that not all of the ten plagues are unleashed by Moses. The midrash, in fact, attributes only three to Moses--those of hail, locusts, and darkness.The first three plagues--those of blood, frogs, and vermin--are attributed to Aaron, while still three others--insects, pestilence, and the death of the first born--come directly from God. Finally, one plague--that of boils--is triggered by all three of them jointly.

Not Superhuman

The midrash does not provide an overall explanation for the pattern. From a modern perspective, I would observe that the multiple authorship of the plagues may be intended to understate the magical prowess of Moses. In its portrait of the man, the Torah consistently brings out his failings. Though larger than life, Moses never looms before us as superhuman. Moreover, at the end, the Torah conceals his place of burial. Moses is to bevenerated, not worshipped. His persona ought not to become a cultic focal point.

river of blood

What interests me, however, is the highly suggestive partial explanation offered by the midrash for Aaron's causing the first three plagues.The homily turns on the important rabbinic principle of acknowledging a favor (hakarat ha-tov). As the beneficiary of an act of kindness, we are bound in a lifelong relationship with its progenitor, whether animate or inanimate. There is too little good in the world for us to indulge in ingratitude. Our life should become a text for others.

In this spirit, the midrash has God address Moses."'The waters that preserved you when you were thrown into them and the dust which protected you on the day that you killed the Egyptian [that is, covered his body] should not be smitten by you.' That is why they were smitten by Aaron" [Torah Shlemah, vol. 10, p. 44-45]. Put differently, it would have been an act of gross ingratitude for Moses to smite elements of nature to which he owed his very life. And so the devastation (including that of the frogs which came from the Nile) was wrought by Aaron.

The same ethical principle prompted the midrash to account for another episode in Moses's life. Prior to his death, he is instructed by God to eradicate the Midianites, who had needlessly joined Balak, King of Moab, to induce the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 22:2-8). Again an acute reading gives rise to ethical insight. Though the command is directed to Moses (31:2), he sends others to execute it (31:6). According to the midrash, his personal indebtedness to the land of Midian, which gave him refuge, a family, and employment when he fled Egypt, forced him to recuse himself from leading the assault.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.