Sermon: Insects or Wild Beasts? What not knowing can teach us about Judaism and life.

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 January 2018

In our Essentials class on a Wednesday evening, we sometimes experience what we might call a “QI moment” – the moment when, as on the TV Show, we ask a question to which we all think we know the answer, but then alarm bells ring (literally on the show, not in the class) because the accepted ‘truth’ turns out not to be the case.
Sometimes the QI parallel is even stronger because, as in series I of that show, we have to hold up a, in our case again metaphorical, sign, admitting that nobody knows the actual answer.

In our Torah portion this morning we encounter just such a moment.

What is the fourth plague?

Anyone whose knowledge of the Exodus story is taken mainly from Pesach haggadot knows the answer.  In every standard Haggadah on my shelves the fourth plague is wild beasts.  In medieval illuminated haggadot, and in modern versions too, the plagues are often decorated with lions and other similarly scary beasts – wolves and bears, eagles, even crocodiles.

But, minus ten points for all of us.
Because, as Izzy mentioned in her Dvar Torah this morning, the question is not so straightforward.

While the identities of the other nine plagues are clear, the exact meaning of the fourth is not.  And ‘wild beasts’ may be an answer, but it’s certainly not the answer, and probably not even the best answer.

The Hebrew word for the fourth plague is Arov – normally understood as related to the Hebrew root meaning to mix.  So the best translation is probably a swarm.  And even though it’s not made explicit ‘a swarm of what’, the better translation, and that found in the JPS translation that many of you have this morning, is probably a swarm of insects.

The way in which arov is translated is a debate that can be traced back over 2000 years in our textual tradition.  The earliest translation of the bible, the Greek translation begun by the Jews of Alexandria in the third century BCE understands it to refer to a particular dogfly with a nasty bite that was native to Egypt.  By contrast, Targum – the Aramaic translation – and many rabbinic versions of the story, understand it as wild beasts.  As do the Torah commentators of the Middle Ages.  Saadiah Gaon, in Babylon in the tenth century, understands it as ‘animals of prey’; Rashi describes arov as “a mixture – of snakes and scorpions and all kinds of evil creatures’.  His grandson, Rashbam is more creative still – he understands arov as a swarm of wolves – ze’ev aravot – the wolves of the desert, and ze’ev erev – a wolf that attacks in the evening.
So, we actually have a variety of possibilities from different parts of the animal kingdom – insects, exotic mammals, a swarm of wolves, snakes and scorpions.

The contrast between translations is most stark in a text in midrash Exodus Rabbah.  There, we find two rabbis side by side on the page presenting the two different understandings – Rabbi Nehemiah understands them as insects, Rabbi Yehudah as wild beasts.

The plagues are such a fundamental part of our formative story, it seems extraordinary that we should not even know what one of them was, extraordinary that we should be left holding two very different translations in this way.

But that this is the case is quite important.
Because not only do we not ‘know the answer’, but our tradition is largely unconcerned by this fact.  The two different versions of Exodus Rabbah sit comfortably side by side on the same page – though the commentators express a view one way or the other based on their reading of the text, they never seek to strike the other version from the record, and in a mikraot gdolot – a bible with commentaries, the possibilities are there together.

And this tells us something about how we should read Torah: that we misread if we think this is about historical reality, if we are overly concerned about exactly what happened.  The lack of reaching for an answer in our tradition is because our relationship with bible, is not (or should not be) about ‘what happened’ but about our stories and how we tell them.  Fundamental to Judaism is that we tell our stories in multiple ways, even on the same page.

The most extraordinary example of this is in a famous Talmudic story that I cannot possibly tell from the bimah, and wouldn’t even dare to teach without some serious explicit content warnings.
But I can – and will now try to – give a much edited overview.  In Tractate Gittin of the Babylonian Talmud, two rabbis, Rabbi Evyatar and Rabbi Yonatan, argue about exactly what sparked events leading to the death of pilegesh b’givah – the concubine of a Levite at Gibeah – a horrific violent story in the Book of Judges in which a man sends away his concubine with terrible consequences.  They can’t agree on what she did wrong to be sent away, so ask Elijah the prophet exactly what the background to the biblical story was.  Elijah asks God and God replies “Evyatar b’ni kach hu omer; Yonatan b’ni, kach hu omer” – “Evyatar my son, this is what he says, Yonatan my son, this is what he says”.  But surely, they protest, one of the versions, or neither, must be true – for “there is no doubt in heaven”?  Rather, as Elijah tells the Rabbis concerned, “Eilu va’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim hein” – “These and these are the words of a living God”.  That is, in the telling of our stories it is not that one is true the other not, but both renderings of the events are sacred and true.

Of course, this is not merely a learning for us in how we read Torah, but also in how we interact with one another and the world.  As human beings we generally don’t like ambiguity, we struggle with uncertainty.  A common phrase in medieval rabbinic writing is “ein simchah k’simchat hatarat ha-s’feikot” – there is no joy like the joy of the resolution of doubts.  But often in our lives there is more than one possible answer.
Rabbinic Judaism encourages us not to be closed to the other version, but to live with, to celebrate, different voices and tensions.  This is perhaps more obviously true of our political opinions, our moral decisions, but it is true of our stories, too.  The same events can be understood, can be told in different ways – our task is to hold them both on the same page.   Brexiteer or remainer; Left or right; Peacenik or hawk – we tell the same stories in different ways.  Our challenge is to recognise the sanctity of the voice with which we disagree.

With that appreciation of uncertainty comes the recognition of the limitations of our knowledge.  We don’t know something really fundamental in our story, and that is OK.  To admit that we don’t is not something to be ashamed of but an example of true intellectual integrity.  In his commentaries, nearly a hundred times – though ironically not in this case – Rashi states “I do not know what this means”.  As the Bavli – the Babylonian Talmud – puts it, “Lameid l’shoncha lomar eini yodea” – “Teach your tongue to say, I do not know”.

What was the fourth plague?
We might, with the haggadot, answer, “Wild beasts”.  If we do, then the alarm should blare – not just the alarm of QI, but an alarm about how we read, about the dangers of our own certainty.  For we do not know the intention of the biblical authors (though a swarm of insects seems a better bet).
More importantly, it doesn’t matter.
We should not be so proud, so stubborn as to say that we have to know every answer – even about Torah, especially about Torah.  To be Jews is to live creatively with that ambiguity, and to carry on telling the story in its multiple different ways.

As God might put it: Nehemiah b’ni, kach hu omer; Yehudah b’ni, kach hu omer
Eilu veilu divrei Elohim chayyim.
Insects and Wild beasts – these and these are the words of a living god.