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Homo Sans Sapiens
Human foibles never cease to amaze. Be they idiosyncrasies of the modern era or age-old miscalculations doomed by historical ignorance to be repeated, people consistently do things that run counter to all logic. And we dare to call ourselves homo sapiens, meaning ‘wise man’! It is a debatable pronouncement, to be sure.
An example of astoundingly irrational behavior occurs in this week’s Torah portion, as it recounts the seventh plague G-d visited on the Egyptians. Moshe tells Pharaoh and his subjects that G-d will rain down “barad”, a lethal concoction of fire-bearing hail, upon them. He then tells them how to save themselves and their possessions – simply bring them inside your homes, he says. The hail won’t affect what’s safely inside, he promises. The humiliated Egyptians have already suffered six devastating plagues at the hands of G-d. One would think that Moshe’s prediction would at least merit some precaution, that Pharaoh and his people would keep themselves and their property indoors at the appointed time, to be safe. But the verses say otherwise.
“One who feared G-d would bring his servants and cattle inside. And one who did not pay attention to the word of G-d, left his servants and cattle in the fields.”
There were those, and apparently not a small number, of people who ignored Moshe’s warnings, and took their chances with the hail, with disastrous consequences. The phrasing ‘and one who did not pay attention’ stands out in particular. Perhaps we would expect the Torah to describe such miscreants as ‘defiant’. Perhaps ‘heretics’ would be appropriate. But could there still be Egyptians who were simply ‘not paying attention to the word of G-d’? One would think that six plagues would at least get them to take such Divine previews somewhat seriously! What where these people thinking?
R’ Yakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) in his work “Birkas Peretz” addresses this question. He says that the Torah here teaches us a fundamental lesson in human behavior. Humans don’t act on their thoughts. They act on their emotions. That, of course, is not news to us. What the Torah hammers home here is how far that goes. It takes effort for humans to do anything based on logic. By nature, humans do what they want to do, and develop logical arguments to justify their actions and positions. It is to the extent that if someone does not want to admit to a fear, a danger, or a higher authority, they will find a way to explain it away. The Egyptian property owners in question convinced themselves that the first six instances of Divine retribution were an accident, or sufficient, or G-d demonstrating his mastery of the beginners’ set of miracles. They said that such hail is beyond even G-d’s abilities, or that G-d was setting the Egyptians up with his other feats, so that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go when he heard this latest threat. G-d would never be so cruel to the Egyptians, they thought. He wouldn’t be able to beat the Egyptian gods who were masters of fire, they reasoned, or He really wants all of us to stand up to Him, to earn His respect. But in reality, they were in denial that they, the mightiest people on the planet, were really not so mighty. They did not want to face that fact, so it didn’t intrude on their decisions.
The problem is, it is not just the Egyptians who suffer from this irrationality. Every one of us does this to ourselves, more often than we care to admit, and perhaps more often than not. Logic, reason, prudence, and reality can be quite subjective, unless we make recognizing and acting according to objective logic and reality a priority. Having “Yiras Shamayim’, a strong awareness of the awesomeness of G-d, gives us the ability to prioritize such a life of truth. Without it, we can experience open miracles, and yet simply not pay attention. As we see from the plague of “barad”, the results can be catastrophic.
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is currently Head of School at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix, AZ. He writes Torah content for the Phoenix Community Kollel's weekly "Shabbos Spirit" and periodically for the Arizona Jewish News.