Mordechai Silverstein

We Are Where We Live

Even before Babylonia became the second center of Jewish life, there was another vital diaspora community in Alexandria, Egypt. This Jewish community there was committed to Jewish life and living but was substantially different in outlook and thought from their brethren in Eretz Yisrael. Their access to Jewish wisdom was in Greek and their interpretive thought processes were greatly influenced by Greek thinking as well.

The differences between these two schools of thought are particularly pronounced in their interpretations of the significance of the Eser Makkot – the Ten Plagues. In this short study we will compare the approach of the rabbinic sages from the period of the Mishnah with the thinking of the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, an apocryphal work, authored by a Greek speaking Alexandrian Jew who lived around the beginning of the Common Era. Interestingly, both of these works understand the plagues as an act of “midah k’neged midah – measure for measure” – punishment in kind, namely, that there is a certain poetic congruence between the acts of the Egyptians and the punishment meted out by God. From this point, though, the significance of the punishment differs radically. (See Y. Rosen-Zvi, Hahistoria Hasodit shel Hagea Yisrael, pp. 161-170)

The following brief midrash from the period of the Mishnah gives us a taste of rabbinic thinking:

And so it was with Pharaoh, who came to harm Israel [by drowning the male children], God drowned him in the Sea of Reeds, as it said: ‘But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Sea of Reds (Psalms 136:15) Likewise, every nation or kingdom that comes to harm Israel, God judges according to this rule. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek 2, Horowitz- Rabin ed. p. 181-2)

The sages in this vignette emphasize the rule of God’s justice in the world, particularly, in carry out punishment against those who would do harm to His people. This sort of particularistic thinking is obviously the product of those who came into direct interaction with those who would do them harm.

Contrast this outlook with that of a Jew who lived in Alexandria’s cosmopolitan environment. (Just to note, some years later the interaction between the Jews and non-Jews there was not so pleasant!):

But for the foolish devices of their wickedness, wherewith being deceived they worshipped serpents, void of reason, and vile beasts, You (God) sent a multitude of unreasonable beasts upon them for vengeance; That they might know, that where man sins, by the same also shall he be punished. (Wisdom of Solomon 11:15-16)

Therefore, by the like were they punished worthily, and by the multitude of beasts tormented. Instead of which punishment, dealing graciously with thine own people, You (God) prepared for them meat of a strange taste, even quails to stir up their appetite: (Wisdom of Solomon 16:2)

For the Wisdom of Solomon, the purpose of the plagues was to teach the nations to recognize God and to reject idolatry – a universal message intended for all. The author of this work totally ignores the role of the Egyptians in enslaving the Children of Israel, possibly because he lived in Egypt.

This small sample might help us explain the almost obvious idea that the environments we live in deeply reflect both who we are and how we think. It also might afford us an opportunity to better understand the disagreements which face us in our day. Something sorely lacking this Pesah season.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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