Yet One More Plague

“One of the oldest and most persistent of our human failings is our stubborn refusal to learn from experience.”

Rabbi Olan’s sermon “Yet One More Plague,” delivered on February 9, 1964, begins with a dramatic example of this theme: Moses is trying to convince Pharoah to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. When Pharoah keeps resisting, God sends nine plagues upon Egypt, each worse than the last. Pharoah only gives in when the tenth plague results in the death of his own first born son. Pharoah could not learn from experience and so avoid the ultimate plague.

Rabbi Olan looks at this problem in our personal lives, in our communities, and also in the larger context where the ultimate plague is war. In all these cases, “We…just will not learn the lesson of the plagues which come into our personal and communal life.”

There are different explanations for this problem: The pessimists say that “human nature…is what it is and there is nothing we can do about it.” Others say that we can overcome this problem only through “faith in God, not [by our] own efforts.” Rabbi Olan holds with the voices which say, “There is no evil, individual or social, which cannot be overcome if men will use their intelligence and really will to do it.”

The overwhelming plague which threatens our world today is climate change. This is not simply a threat to our individual lives or even to the lives of our communities, nor only to countries, regions, continents, or hemispheres. It is our world, our planet which is threatened. And it requires the collective will of the whole world to stave off this final plague. This is a tall order. Rabbi Olan speaks often about our responsibility for repairing the world (tikkun olam). This time we must take this responsibility literally. He encourages us with these words: “The failure of Pharaoh need not be our failure. We can, if we will, learn from the first or second plague. The final one can be avoided.”

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*Written by Frances Olan.*