There is nothing new under the sun, King
Solomon famously proclaimed in Ecclesiastes.
Solomon's rule holds true for every other human tendency, habit, diversion or deviance as well. Study the Torah, and you're sure to find it there, for (as Ben Bagbag tells us in Ethics of the Fathers) everything is contained in the Torah.
Including atheism, which was the topic of a most interesting piece by Natalie Angier in the New York Times Magazine the Sunday before last, "An Atheist Trapped in G-d's Country." As I thought about the article while studying the parsha this week, I realized that there is absolutely nothing new in the opinions voiced by Ms. Angier herself, or the other fervent unbelievers she approvingly quotes. The plagues that G-d brought upon Egypt (the first seven of which appear in this week's parsha) were meant, in large measure, to correct some of the very same (ancient) heresies, and implant faith in the hearts of all who witnessed them.
According to Abarbanel, the famous medieval Torah commentator (who, as treasurer to the Kings of Portugal and Spain, was the Alan Greenspan of his day), Hashem brought the plagues to correct three false conceptions that Pharaoh had. The first--most sweeping of all--was that Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, does not exist at all: as Pharaoh declares in last week's parsha, when Moshe and Aharon first appear before him, "Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel!" Second was that even if--for argument's sake--there is a Creator, He does not extend His Providence (or even His casual interest) over the lowly realm of earthly existence. And third, He lacks the ability to change nature and its laws.
Before proceeding with the analysis of the Abarbanel, we duly note that the first two positions appear in Ms. Angier's article. She herself does not believe in "any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself." (Position One: No Creator.) Furthermore, she cites a survey of an elite group of scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences) that report that only 7 percent believe in a "personal G-d," as opposed, presumably, to some abstract deist conception of a Creator who has gone AWOL after calling the universe into being--an "absentee landlord," as Simon Blackburn writes in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (Position Two: He's Not Running the World.) And while no voice in the article explicitly declares G-d to be powerless over nature (Position Three), Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, articulates the familiar position that science obviates the need to posit a Creator: "As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention "
There are other noteworthy tidbits in the article that deserve comment as well, including author Wendy Kaminer's bald (if not surreal) declaration that the question of the existence of G-d is "irrelevant," and biologist Richard Dawkins' claim that "our morals today [our disapproval of discrimination, our respect for the rights of the individual, etc.] owe very little to religion." But I will try to return to these points at a later date. If most of Ms. Angier's friends and acquaintances (in her own words) "stopped doing battle with the big questions of life and death, meaning and eternity, pretty much when they stopped using Clearasil," I can at least count myself fortunate that while my acne has--for the most part--disappeared, my interest in the big questions has not.
In any case, let's get back to the parsha.
Pharaoh had his doubts about the existence of G-d. So Hashem brought the first set of three plagues (blood, frogs, lice) to verify His basic existence, announcing that very intention to Pharaoh at their start: "So says Hashem, 'Through this [the plague of blood] shall you know that I am Hashem " (7, 17) Indeed, although Pharaoh's magicians are able, to a limited extent, to reproduce the first two, they concede defeat at the third: "It is a finger of G-d!"
Pharaoh had his doubts that G-d is running the world. So Hashem brought the second set of three plagues (beasts, epidemic, boils) to show that He governs all human affairs down here, "so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land." (7, 18) In each of these plagues, the Torah explains that G-d clearly distinguished between those who are servants of G-d, and those who are not. We are told explicitly that the swarm of beasts did not affect Goshen where the Jews lived, that the epidemic did not afflict a single animal among the livestock of the Children of Israel, and that the boils and blisters ("erupting on man and beast") afflicted Pharaoh's magicians--along with the rest of the Egyptians--who were, then, embarrassed to stand before (an unblemished) Moshe.
Finally, Pharaoh thought that Hashem was powerless to alter certain forces in nature; even if He was a divinity, there were competing gods--the sun, and the constellation of Aries (representing the sheep, which was worshipped by the Egyptians). So Hashem brought the third set of three plagues (hail, locusts, darkness), which were designed to show Pharaoh that "there is none like Me in all the world." (9, 14) All three of these plagues blocked the light of the sun and the constellations, thereby proving Hashem unequaled in the heavens.
Needless to say, the plagues were meant to uproot Pharaoh's same heresies from the hearts of the Jewish people--who, as we may remember, were greatly influenced by the idolatry of Egyptian society. At the start of next week's parsha, in fact, Hashem tells Moshe that His goal in displaying His signs and wonders was not just to convince Egypt, but, more importantly, to educate His chosen people--"that you [the Jews] may know that I am Hashem." (10, 2) To be worthy of redemption, and of the national mission G-d had in mind for us after that, we needed a Crash Course in Basic Judaism that would dwarf, in intensity and brilliance, even the best offering of the Savannah Kollel!
That Crash Course was the experience of the plagues.
Judging from the New York Times, maybe it's time for a refresher.
May we see the hand of G-d in our lives--not in the form of plagues, but in the unfolding of the final (and joyous) redemption for which we pray.
(This parsha sheet was based on the commentary of the K'li Yakar.)
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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