Voltaire – among others – was fond of making the satirical observation that “G-D created man in His image and, ever since, man has sought to return the compliment!” This phenomenon will help us unravel an enigma in this week’s sidra. During the first plague of blood, Egypt was suffering due to an inability to access water. The Midrash explains that the only way an Egyptian could do so was to purchase it from an Israelite. This limited supply of water must have barely kept Egypt going. Yet this precious ration, the Egyptian necromancers proceeded to transform to blood! (Exodus 7:22)
Were they mad? Weren’t they as well as the rest of Egypt desperate for the water? After all, the narrative makes it quite clear that it was only a one-way process; the necromancers did not possess sufficient wizardry to revert the blood to water. And yet Pharaoh, far from carting off these wizards to the local lunatic asylum, strengthens his resolve and deadens his heart and his mind, oblivious to the truth.
We do not need to dig that deeply into the workings of human psychology and its frailties to understand that this episode is all about the human desire for control.
Man at his less worthy moments will habitually clutch at the slenderest straw to ‘prove’ to himself that he is in control. It may be as the head of his household, as the boss of his company, as the commander-in-chief of his regiment or as the ruler of his country. Instead of taking responsibility in these positions of power – which is a benign function of duty – he seeks to exert control which is an outgrowth of what he believes to be his right – and the outcome of such negative, abusive conduct will be far from benign for all concerned.
When man become estranged from G-D, this desire for control will take the much more dangerous form of control of his environment – and the result will be what Voltaire speaks about and what Pharaoh, aided and abetted by his wizards, demonstrates in the real. His desire for control is so obsessive it outweighs even his natural instinct for survival! He prefers to relinquish Egypt’s sole supply of water rather than acknowledge defeat in a cosmic power struggle!
Pharaoh is the personification of the “self-made god”. Not content with abusing his Israelite slaves, he seeks to abuse G-D by usurping His role.
Today’s climate-change “pharaohs” are not entirely dissimilar. They have made global warming and climate change into a doctrine in which you must believe or else risk today’s equivalent of yesteryear’s excommunication-for-heretics accompanied by savage verbal abuse and vitriolic vilification. These campaigners have crossed the boundary from responsibility to control. They believe implicitly that man holds the key to the future of his planet and either deny or ignore the existence of a force outside man’s control. Their key players experience the same sense of sinister satisfaction Pharaoh felt when the magicians were able to replicate the first two plagues. We now have everything under control! Even in the Covid-19 era, post-vaccine discovery, this sentiment continues to hold sway.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, let us clarify. Environmentalism and ecology is not a modern invention. It is a fundamental tenet of the Torah and is a sub-category of one of the Seven Noahide laws incumbent upon all mankind. We are not to abuse G-D’s precious world. Several mitsvot of the Torah, for example the prohibition of wanton destruction of productive trees (Deut. 20:19) serve to cement this principle. It is entirely appropriate that man exercise his responsibility to ensure to the best of his ability that the environment is not horribly polluted whether by greenhouse gas or carbon emissions in the same way as a responsible physician will treat his ailing patient with the most advanced medical or surgical means at his disposal. However, that same physician will be exceeding the bounds of his responsibility and entering the nebulous realms of attempted control if he starts to play the prophet and predict that “this patient has just three months to live!”
Similarly it is not for climate-change scientists to prophecy a doomsday scenario. By doing so they deny the possibility of heavenly intervention for the sake of the world’s survival or conversely that, despite their best-laid plans, the global climate may continue to go askew due to a Force operating outside their control.
If our world leaders and climate-change activists knew and acknowledged the world’s best-seller, they would perhaps be more ready to entertain the notion that there is a G-D out there who is in control. A G-D who weighs up man’s behaviour and recompenses measure for measure, as every believing Jew recites daily in the Shema.
It may not be a popular sentiment but maybe, just maybe, the extremities of weather patterns the world is now increasingly experiencing – droughts, deluges, tsunamis, blizzards, record temperatures – is G-D’s response to the extremities of amoral and immoral conduct now prevalent in the world If this is the case then the resolutions we and especially our leaders should be making are of an entirely different order!