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Parashat 12/29/2010

Parashat VaEra

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Dedicated to Susie Scharf; may her memory be for a blessing for all of us.

Food for Thought

The first seven plagues are in our Parashah.  Throughout the first six plagues Pharaoh is quite stubborn considering the beating he and his country are taking.  The seventh plague, the hail, really appears to get his attention:

This time I am guilty!  Gd is Just!  It is I and my people who are in the wrong!  Pray to Gd.  There has been enough of this supernatural thunder and hail.  I will let you leave.  You will not be delayed again.  (9:27-28 tr. R. Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah)

Indeed, Gd describes this plague as “all my plagues.”  Rashi interprets this as the plague of the ripened produce.  (Rashi’s comment can also be vowelized as “the plague of the firstborn,” but that makes little sense in this context.)  In other words, besides the fact that anything, man or beast, that was left out in the fields, was killed by the intense hail, the ripened grain – the barley and the flax – was destroyed, and “all the trees in the field were smashed.”  The later ripening grains were spared, as Moshe points out to Pharaoh; they will be locust fodder next week.  But at the moment, the food supply of the country was threatened.  (Incidentally, the destruction of the food supply is the exact undoing of everything Yosef accomplished.  Instead of honoring and preserving his legacy, the Egyptians chose to be among those who curse the Jewish people, and, as Gd promised Avraham Avinu, they were cursed in turn.)

It seems obvious that a threat to the nation’s food supply must be taken seriously.  I’d like to look at food from a slightly different angle, based on the work of Ilya Prigogine, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977 (and who was Jewish incidentally).  We are all familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the law that states that closed physical systems tend towards disorder as time goes by.  If we leave a car unattended in the weather it will rust and fall apart.  If we leave a pile of rusty metal unattended in the weather, it will not spontaneously organize itself into a car.

We do, however, find that there are systems in nature that spontaneously become more organized and complex.  These systems are open to the environment, exchanging energy and material with the environment.  One simple example is the air over a hotplate or a stove.  There is energy flowing through this air – it is input at the bottom where the burner is turned on, and it exits at the top of the column.  If the burner is hot enough (think of a blacktop road in Arizona in July), the air will begin to shimmer, and eventually will form convection cells – whorls of air that make the process of heat transfer more efficient, and that represent a new level of structure and large-scale integration of the system of air.  Similar examples abound in physics, chemistry and biology, and probably in psychology and the social sciences as well.  Prigogine notes that whenever a system is open enough – that means, has sufficient energy and/or material flowing through it, so that it is far from equilibrium, then the equations that describe that system will always contain positive feedback loops that will allow small fluctuations to grow to macroscopic size.  This means that the system will become more structured over time.  The key is that there must be sufficient input of energy and material.

Now we can better understand Pharaoh’s concern.  It wasn’t just that his people would be hungry.  It was that the flow of energy and material through his country (the “system” he was concerned with) would be disrupted – Egypt would change from an open system to a closed system, one in which order would break down into chaos and dynamism into a sullen inertia.  Just as an individual dies and decays without food, so any system that is closed off from its environment is doomed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This truly is the worst plague that can be visited on any system!

The same laws hold true on the level of the spirit.  For our spirit to grow, it must be open to spiritual inputs, and it must be generous and giving of itself to its surroundings.  A closed mind cannot grow and a closed heart stagnates and dies.

Ultimately, all inputs in the universe, be they physical or spiritual, come from Gd.  It was Gd, radiating His light into the “darkness on the face of the deep” Who created the world and sustains it by the constant flow of Divine energy.  The main question in our own lives is, to what extent do we wish to open ourselves up to that flow.  If we are open, we get the maximum flow and therefore the maximum possibility of growth.  If we sin we set up obstacles to the flow from Gd, and the flow breaks down into turbulence, which we experience as suffering.  If we repent and purify ourselves, Gd’s light can once again flow more freely, at once enlivening us and further purifying us, as our Sages tell us: “He who comes to purify himself, they help him from Above.”  Gd in His great mercy has given us His Torah, all the guidance we need to choose the path of life, growth and purity.  We need only approach it humbly, and open ourselves up to all goodness.