Divine Seeds and Roots of Redemption
We are deep in winter, the season of dormant seeds. We’ve brought what plants we can indoors and released our outside gardens to rest and regenerate underground during the colder months.
This year, the holiday of Tu b’Shvat falls on January 21 – hardly ideal tree-planting season in Philadelphia. Growing up on the East Coast, I’ve always associated this holiday with the coldest weather, but even that is no longer a given; in my lifetime, winters in the Northeastern U.S. have become warmer. In the Middle East, where this holiday originated, the growing seasons are also less predictable. The changing global climate and its effect on seasons add a layer of uncertainty to our planting cycles that our ancestors likely did not anticipate.
In Winter we read Shemot (The Book of Exodus), which begins by listing the names of our ancestors who were brought by Joseph to Egypt. Over the following centuries, they multiplied, and the new narrative begins: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex 1: 8).
Joseph the Dreamer has died, and the new Pharaoh does not know Joseph. Maybe Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph’s ways, doesn’t care what Joseph did for the old Pharaoh, or chooses not to recognize the status Joseph’s family once enjoyed in Egypt. In any case, we know where this story is headed: Slavery; the resistance of five women; Moshe’s charge from God; the demand for freedom; the Plagues.
The Ten Plagues storm through the text at a ruthless, rhythmic pace. Scholar Ziony Zevit reads them as a dark mirror of the Creation story, in which each plague reverses an utterance of creation: poisoning water; overrunning the earth with creatures of sky, land, and sea; destroying vegetation; killing animals over which people were given dominion in Eden; reverting light back to darkness; and finally, destroying God’s own likeness: The firstborn of Egypt and all the Egyptian warriors at the Sea of Reeds. Zevit concludes:
“At the end of the narrative in Exodus, Israel looks back over the stilled water of the sea at a land with no people, no animals and no vegetation, a land in which creation had been undone” (“Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues,” Bible History Daily, Biblical Archaeological Society, 3.11.2018).
Why would God undo Creation in Egypt?
Most of us probably learned as kids that God kept smacking the Egyptians with plagues in order to convince Pharaoh to give up and let the Israelites go. But any kid will tell you that you can’t pummel someone into kindness. And if we read the Torah text carefully, it becomes obvious that the Plagues were never meant to convince the Egyptians to change their behavior. Quite the opposite: Pharaoh is unable to soften his heart because God will not let him; Pharaoh is a puppet, operating as if under the Imperius Curse (looking at you, Harry Potter fans). God controls Pharaoh’s heart, repeatedly hardening it against Pharaoh’s own interests: “Adonai said to Moshe, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers …’” (Ex 10:1).
Pharaoh’s and his courtiers’ responses are manipulated by God. This means the lesson here is not actually for them, for how can they learn and change if they are puppets? But if the Plagues aren’t there to teach Pharaoh a lesson, whom are they meant to influence?
Well, arguably, the enslaved Israelites. This whole endeavor would be pointless if the Israelites weren’t willing to actually pick up and leave, and they may need a fair amount of bombastic convincing to do so; sometimes you can’t imagine a different reality until yours crashes down around you.
The enslaved Israelites are one target audience for the show of Plagues. But the Torah explicitly addresses an additional audience: The verse quoted above goes on to say that God has hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and courtiers specifically “ … in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians – so that you will know that I am Adonai” (Ex 10: 1-2 – my emphasis).
The second “you” here is us, the descendants of those enslaved Israelites. The authors of the Torah are reaching across the millennia to speak directly to us. But what, exactly, are they saying? That God is God? What could that possibly mean to us, here and now?
We exist in a time in which so much of what we have created is being undone: protections for nature, civil society, human rights, democratic institutions. Worse, our disregard for the Earth is causing Creation itself to change: Floods, rapid extinctions of species, death of crops, ruptures of ecosystems, fires, drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, massive human displacement and starvation. Exacerbated by global warming from the fossil fuels we burn, these modern plagues are making the Earth a less hospitable place for us to inhabit.
I asserted earlier that our ancestors could not have anticipated the ecological uncertainty, the undoing of creation as we know it, that we face in this era. But now I’m not so sure. As we look backwards across millennia and read about the plagues unraveling Creation in ancient Egypt, we understand that the ancestors are indeed speaking to us from just such a moment, and offering the wisdom of their story:
“A new king arose who did not know Joseph.”
When we abandon the pursuit of dreams, we begin the undoing of Creation.
At some point we stopped knowing how to dream. We started assuming that human development and creation must always end in ecological mess, that our civil structures necessarily lead to corruption. From the moment we started de-funding art and education, we chose not to believe in our ability to be better. From that moment, we forgot what the ancients have been trying to tell us, that God is God (“Ani Adonai” – “I am God”); that God is a creator, and that we, created in God’s image, are also creators.
I’m not convinced we’ve completely abandoned Joseph. One benefit of the darker, colder months is that there’s more time to sleep, to replenish, to dream. As we tuck in for the remainder of the winter, let’s use this season of sleeping seeds and quiet rejuvenation to dream up a new garden of our beliefs, civil structures, our planet – and all the little mirrors of Creation we make along the way.
In praise of Creation: Barukh she amar v’haya ha’olam – Barukh Hu. Blessed is the One who speaks the world into being. Blessed is That One.
A propos mirrors of Creation: Join Fun-A-Day: Create or work on a piece of art every day in January! (Visual art, music, photography, dance, etc. all count!)