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ב"ה

Coexistence

Friday, 15 January, 2010 - 10:41 am

I was once trying to enjoy a presentation to no avail. The couple in the row in front of me was chatting so loudly I could not hear the discourse at all. Unable to bear it any longer, I tapped the man and said, “Excuse me, I can’t hear.”

“I should hope not!” he retorted sharply. “This is a private conversation.”

***

In recounting the ten plagues that befell the Egyptian people, the Torah tells us about a double miracle that occurred in the seventh plague of hail. This was no simple hailstorm, as we read in this week’s portion Va’eira, “And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail” (Shemot/Exodus 9:24). Usually fire and water don’t get along, but here they “made peace between themselves” (Rashi, ibid) to fulfill the will of their Maker.

This particular miracle seems to stand out from the rest. Generally, G-d did not taunt the Egyptians by “showing off” with extra flair. Each plague had its destructive and rehabilitative purpose – and that’s where it ended. The Talmud also teaches that G-d does not perform miracles without cause.

So why the extra digging of the dagger in this particular plague? Would it not suffice to destroy the Egyptian landscape and infrastructure with hail alone?

***

Our Rabbis explain that the great, scathing malevolence of Egypt was its arrogance. Pharaoh sat at the top of this pyramid of conceit, as is evidenced in his statement quoted in this week’s Haftorah, “My river is my own, and I made myself.”

One towering characteristic of haughtiness is the coldness portrayed to others. We may assume that such expression is due to the inherently indifferent disposition of the egocentric.

In a journal entry from 1942 the Lubavitcher Rebbe puts things in perspective. The arrogant individual, he argues, does not lack warmth.  Quite the contrary, he is so utterly consumed with the obsession and worship of self that he loses sight of others. Fire and water, hot and cold, passion and apathy all coexist in the absurd psyche of the narcissist.

That couple was not derisive to me because they were in an aloof mood. Just the opposite. So enwrapped were they in their heated dialogue, that no one else seemed to exist.

***

Egypt’s arrogance – and subsequent insensitivity to human suffering – was caused by its fixation with self.

Each plague was intended to crush a specific polluted element of the Egyptian consciousness. In order to crush its snobbery, hail would not suffice. That would indeed destroy the effect, but not the cause. Hail with fire, on the other hand, would combat the cause and the effect.

As we look to current events and witness the tragic suffering of thousands, we must remind ourselves that the key to humanity and benevolence is coexistence. Not just of individuals, but of self.

Let’s turn ancient Egypt on its self-absorbed head. For just as narcissism can lead to apathy, so can humility lead to compassion.

If we properly regulate our internal hot and cold buttons, we’ll be much better equipped to coexist and empathize with others.

Comments on: Coexistence
1/19/2010

Nick Powers wrote...

Excellent Blog! Wise and timely, Rabbi. Seems the world is still full of Pharaohs and the plagues they bring on the rest of us. The message never gets old.