Details and the Fulfilled Life

The story of the 10 plagues has a comic relief: Pharaoh's magicians. This bunch of hapless sorcerers make four appearances during the 10 plagues. The first two, blood and frogs, they are able to replicate. This serves to harden Pharaoh's heart, as it diminishes the supernatural aspect of those plagues. Pharaoh is not impressed, since human magicians can do these things too.

The third plague, lice, marks a turning point. Bringing lice out of the dust of the earth proves to be too much for the magicians. They are unable to replicate it, and thus they proclaim, "It is the finger of God." (They make one more nonappearance in the story, at the plague of boils. There, we are told that they were unable to even stand in front of Pharaoh, as they were afflicted as well.)

Let's focus on lice. Two things puzzle me. First of all, the obvious question of why were the magicians unable to create lice, if they were able to replicate the first two plagues? What was so difficult? Secondly, the plague of lice was to be initiated by Aaron striking the dust. Why not Moses?

Rashi answers both questions. As for the magicians, Rashi tells us that their powers are limited to objects larger in size than a grain of barley. Since lice are smaller, the magicians were unable to influence them. And as for Aaron hitting the dirt in place of Moses, it was because of gratitude. The dirt of Egypt had saved Moses, as it concealed the Egyptian whom he had killed. Therefore, Moses had to demonstrate gratitude to the dirt by not being the one to strike it.

Both of Rashi's answers bring up new questions. Why can't the magicians function when their subject is smaller than a barley grain? What difference does it make? And why is Moses obligated to show sensitivity to dirt, an inanimate object without feelings?

Let's tackle the second question first. Jews cover the challah on Friday night while they make kiddush on a cup of wine. Do you know why they do that? It's because, in theory, challah could also have been used for kiddush, in place of wine. Since the wine is getting the honor, the challah might be embarrassed. So we cover it.

Now the same question applies! Challah is inanimate, it has no feelings. What are we protecting? My teacher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, explained that we are protecting our own character. By showing sensitivity towards inanimate objects, we are training ourselves to show sensitivity to our fellow human beings. In other words, we are chiseling our character traits to the finest detail. We are expelling insensitivity from our souls, even as it relates to inanimate objects.

This is the reason why Moses could not strike the sand. It is because Judaism requires tremendous detail in the shaping of our character. Each word of the prayer service should be said carefully, each requirement of every mitzva should be fulfilled with great attention. Does God really care about that? Yes, he does, because it is through those details that become more and more spiritual. Spirituality is the ladder to reach and connect with God. And God really cares that we connect with Him!

I always wondered how glue worked. After all, two smooth surfaces should not be able to be connected to each other without a nail or screw. How does glue, a liquid that will dry just as flat as the surfaces, actually hold them together?

It's two things: the details and the large surface area. The seemingly flat surface is actually porous, and it is the nature of the glue to enter those pores and then clasp them. Secondly, unlike a nail or a screw which connect one or two points, glue must be spread out across the whole surface to be most effective. And thus, the verse "And you, who are glued to God your Lord are alive today!" takes on significant meaning. We are glued to God by the details of our mitzva observance and spirituality, and by our total commitment of our lives to these things. The details and the totality, together.

Impressionistic art notwithstanding, we are always moved by a beautiful portrait or scenic painting. The more detail, the more realistic the painting and the more we enjoy it. God created a world full of details, down to the smallest things. Ever sit and watch an ant doing its work? It's miniature, but it's beautiful and fascinating. The more spiritual, the more detailed and thorough.

The physical world, however, likes big. Hedonists always want more. Pharaoh's magicians came with the power of the physical world. And earthly magic requires earthly materials, not spiritual ones. The spiritual materials are minute, detailed. A physical magician has no power over spirituality. Thus, they couldn't manipulate lice or anything smaller than a certain size.

When a Jew observes the minutia with great care, he or she is climbing the ladder of spirituality and touching the gateway to heaven. The higher one climbs, the more careful their footing must be. God wants us to enjoy the full beauty of this world, a physical space where one must seek spirituality in the details, in the little things. "The rock [the Painter] creates perfect work…". God is the cosmic painter, painting in a level of detail that is the magnificent world we live in. By paying attention to details, we see more of God's glory and climb the ladder to spirituality.

So never be defensive if someone asks you if you think God really cares. Answer that He does, because He wants us to be spiritually powerful, and capable of appreciating the full incredible beauty of all of creation.