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Jewish Journal

When the Plague Subsides

by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat

January 15, 2010 | 5:17 pm

This week was tough. Sunday night, I came down with the stomach flu and was up all night in pain. I was a wreck all day Monday and then when I started to feel a bit better, my two-year old daughter Hannah woke up Tuesday morning with pink-eye.

Illness is jarring. One moment you’re totally fine and then the next minute, you’re out of commission. The experience reminds us how vulnerable our bodies really are. We like to think that we can plan and get tasks accomplished but our sickness (or that of our kids) demonstrate how tentative our plans actually are. As the Yiddish phrase goes: Mann traoch, Gott lauch Man plans, God laughs.

However, I don’t even feel entitled to write that I had a lousy week – given the earthquake in Haiti. One minute everything in Haiti was fine, and then the next minute witnessed devastation of catastrophic proportions.

How fitting then that this week, we read about the plagues. Like illness or an earthquake, the plagues came on suddenly and threw everything out of whack with drastic, debilitating physical maladies. After a few days, the plagues passed, just as suddenly as they had come.

Moses and Aaron had appeared before Pharaoh and asked that he “let my people go,” which he refused. So God brought successive plagues of increasing severity. For the first few plagues, Pharaoh was not overly impressed. However during the frogs plague (and the plagues thereafter), Pharaoh relented but then once the plague was over, Pharaoh changed his mind and refused to free the slaves.

This week, I thought of Pharaoh and identified with him a little. My first day of feeling well after being sick felt like a miracle. Nothing exciting happened; I just took Hannah to the doctor for her pink eye and took care of her at home. But still, I was so grateful that I could function and wasn’t in pain that I couldn’t be upset about anything. But after a few days, I again became stressed (about all that I hadn’t accomplished in the days that I was sick) and forgot the wonder of just feeling physically okay.

The story of Pharaoh reveals something fundamental about human psychology. Often, we’re compassionate in a crisis but less so thereafter. For example, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami, people from all over the world give generously – which is absolutely essential. But once the coverage dies down, we forget about people in need, day in and day out.

Pharaoh’s example leaves me with the question: How can we hold on to the gratitude and compassion we feel during a crisis once it has passed?

I once saw a woman wearing a shirt that said: “Too blessed to be stressed.” I imagined wearing that phrase on a bracelet as a daily reminder to keep things in perspective. Likewise, the prayer that is traditionally said each morning after going to the bathroom acknowledges the vulnerability of our bodies, that if one of our intricate parts was “blocked or opened, then it would be impossible to exist.” This prayer thanks God, who “heals all flesh and works wonders.”

For me, most often, the daily reminders come from watching my children. When my daughter was home with pink-eye, my husband Tal called to check how she was doing. We were having a boring morning at home. She was playing with a puzzle while I put away the laundry. When Tal asked her how she was, she said, “I’m having a fun time at home.” My children remind me that even the most mundane moments of life are miracles.

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