Shabbat Va-era 5773

Justice is complicated. Finding the appropriate way to punish wrongdoing is a challenging business for lawmakers in any legal system. Societies set policy in an attempt to balance the needs of the victim of the crime (or his/her survivors) and the need to educate/improve/punish the perpetrator. In our parashah, even God has to come up with punishments that fit the crime.

This week, in Va-era, we read of seven of the Ten Plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (usually translated as wild beasts), cattle pestilence, boils, and hail. The Torah simply announces and narrates these plagues, whose general purpose is to show Pharaoh that God is in charge. Absent from the narrative is an explicit reason for these particular Divine acts.

The rabbis of antiquity added a general principle to the story. God, they said, was punishing the Egyptians middah keneged middah, measure for measure. Let’s call this retributive justice–you get in return for what you did with echoes of what you did in what you get. Midrash Tanhuma adds the particulars to the general principle. For example: “Why did He bring blood upon them? Because they would not let Israelite women immerse from their state of ritual unfitness, so as to prevent them from being fruitful and multiplying” (Tanhuma Va-era 14).

This same week, while considering the Divine punishment policy of retributive justice, I came upon another policy, implemented in some parts of the US, called restorative justice. The New York Times Magazine ran a story about a Florida man’s punishment for killing his fiancee was determined in consultation with the victim’s parents, along with federal prosecutors. Follow the link to read the story:

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

What do you think of these two philosophies of justice? Was there an alternative to the Ten Plagues? Did Conor McBride, the killer in the story above, get what he deserved? We’ll explore Midrash Tanhuma further and consider these approaches to justice on Shabbat morning. 

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and hodesh tov,


Rabbi David Wise