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When Bad Things Happen

"Fifth (sic) Plague of Egypt", William Turner

Sermon Shabbat Ve’eira 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha

Eighteen months ago three very funny men published a remarkable and completely irreverent Haggadah for Passover entitled, “For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.” The three co-authors were Dave Barry, the acclaimed Miami Herald humor columnist, writer of many humorous books and recipient of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize, Alan Zweibel, an original “Saturday Night Live” writer, and Adam Mansbach, author of two best-selling books whose titles cannot be fully stated on the bimah, “Go the F*** to Sleep” and “You Have to F****** Eat”, both very successful and very funny, um, parenting books. These three guys’ version of the Exodus story includes statements like “Moses heard the voice of God, which at the Burning Bush and on Mt. Sinai sounded rather like Morgan Freeman,” and a declaration that the tablets with the first set of Ten Commandments that Moses shattered after the Children of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf were “still under warranty, and God wrote out another set of commandments.”

To call their Haggadah irreverent is an understatement, but it does raise a very good point that is particularly relevant this Shabbat: as Dave Barry said, it is intended for everyone who has ever attended a Seder and thought, “What’s missing here are the plague jokes.”

In fact, while there are jokes about almost everything else related to the story of the Exodus that we read this Shabbat and next, there just aren’t a whole lot funny plague jokes. Or, well, any. It’s too bad, I guess, because a few snappy plague jokes would leaven the whole Exodus experience. Get it? Leaven? Sorry.

Actually, in searching for plagues jokes, the best I could come up with was this:

In Exodus, we read the story of Moses and how God brought nine terrible plagues onto the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. You see, Pharaoh was stubborn and still wouldn’t let the Jews leave Egypt, so God had to unleash Plague number 10, despite the previous warnings. This was the death of the first-born of every Egyptian family. Only then, after this greatest of terrors, did Pharaoh release the Jews from slavery and let them leave Egypt to journey to the Promised Land.

But in the face of such convincing evidence that something really bad would happen, why didn’t the Pharaoh release the Jews after the first nine plagues? It took years of research by leading Israeli scholars studying the Dead Sea Scrolls to find the answer. And the answer was, “The Pharaoh was still in deNile”.

No kidding, that was the best one. Awful. Really awful.

But you see, there is a reason for this. It’s that this section of the Torah, Ve’eira is a little heavy, unleavened if you will, filled with awful things happening to the Egyptians. We are used to these plagues being chanted or recited at Seder, and they lose their horror when it is “Dam, Tzfardei’ah, Kinim…” and when we have cute illustrations of them in the Haggadah, or even clever plastic figures to demonstrate them—little jumping frogs, or giant rubber grasshoppers. But the actual events themselves were quite terrible if you had to live through them, a series of natural and human disasters: invasions of insects and vermin of all kinds, infectious disease epidemics, the world turned upside down. We have these kinds of events today, or at least events quite close to them—floods, tsunamis, wildfires, pandemics—and we don’t find them at all amusing.

Of course, while the sequences of plagues are the consequence of the actions of the Pharaoh, the domineering king of Egypt, it is the ordinary people of Egypt who pay the high price, not just the Pharaoh. In fact, it usually works that way. The people on top of society make the bad decisions, and the rest of us pay the high price.

So what about those poor ordinary Egyptians, punished along with their king and his nobles? You can make a case that the average Egyptian citizens were complicit in the slavery carried in their midst, the oppression of the Hebrews that was before their eyes daily. And you can also say that they should have done something about it, fought the system, tried to free the poor slaves. But the truth is that all societies have elements of injustice in them—doesn’t ours?—and it’s much easier said than done to fight against not only City Hall but the entirety of a dictatorial system ruled by a total authoritarian. Maybe the Egyptian people should have protested or tried to overturn the Hebrew slavery system, but likely they would have failed ignominiously if they had. It is true that we should always seek to right the wrongs that surround us, even when we have little influence in doing so. Still, a failure to act heroically against the standard way society worked everywhere in those days—is that any reason people should suffer grievously from 10 awful plagues, including the very worst of them, the sudden, inexplicable death of all first-born Egyptians, even innocent baby boys?

It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s not right. But it is also a fact of life. Bad things happen to people who really don’t deserve them.

Which brings us to a very different kind of question, a very much not-so-funny-issue that we human beings have struggled with since the very beginning of time. Why do awful things suddenly happen in a world in which we would like to see justice and fairness reign?

The question is easy enough to state: why do bad things happen to good people? Rabbi Harold Kushner was wildly successful with a book with a similar title, and he had some insights into it. But the heart of the matter is that there are times in life when things simply go wrong, and it’s very hard to understand what has just happened. These disasters don’t always take the form of actual plagues. Sometimes they are forest fires that burn out of control. And sometimes it is the sudden, inexplicable death of a person you care about, who has had a positive influence in your life, whom you care about, whom you love.

To be honest, I don’t think that natural disasters, and people dying from them, are so hard to understand or accept. These events in nature have always taken place—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, floods, tidal waves. It was only when human beings decided it was a good idea to live in the shadow of active volcanoes that these ordinary events began to kill people, just as it was only when people moved into flood plains or built homes on vulnerable shorelines or high in virgin forests that regularly occurring natural occurences became great human tragedies. This is not to diminish the pain of those who have suffered terribly from such events. But it is to say that they were not disasters until we placed ourselves directly in harm’s way, and until our own collective actions made those events more severe.

No, the much harder question is why do young people sicken and die, why do fathers of young children have heart attacks, why do mothers of infants develop brain cancer and pass away, why do terrible, inexplicable things happen to good people?

I wish, of course that I had an answer. Really, no one knows why. The search for an answer to this question has lingered through all of human history, and probably pre-history as well, and the answer remains stubbornly hidden from us. There is no final answer for these patent injustices, except that God keeps some things to herself.

But in spite of the pain these losses cause, I think there may be a higher purpose. There is a famous story, a typically Jewish one that adds some meaning and context at times of death and suffering, of loss and tragedy.

When God established the world, we are told, God purposely left it unfinished. Each of us, every human being, is required to fulfill only one task in life: completing the world.

In the words of German philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; there we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense at the time it occurs: therefore we must be saved by love.” And as Jews, we need to know, we suffer nothing alone.

The questions, the hurt, the sadness will remain. But if we, each us, can work to perfect the world, there will be comfort and strength in that shared mission.

My friends, we are only finite creatures of flesh and blood and weakness. We cannot prevent sickness and loss, we cannot stop sudden deaths or terror attacks or alleviate great suffering.

But we can, in community, offer each other love and consolation. We can, as capable people in our own areas, work to perfect the world that we know, even strive to overcome injustice where we see it. And perhaps then, in the face of contemporary plagues, we can find, if not answers and solutions, meaning, caring, love and consolation.

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