Parashat Va’era: The Plague of Boils (Shechin), the Book of Job, and an Ironic Allusion
The plague of Boils (Shechin) appears thirteen times in the Tanach, in various passages. Five of those times are the “boils of Egypt”, and once in the Book of Job, Chapter 2, verse 2, Job is afflicted with boils as part of a test agreed upon by Hashem and the Satan. When the Satan receives permission from Hashem to afflict and torture Job, he chooses the plague of “harsh boils, from his feet to the top of his head”. When three of Job’s friends come to console him, they see him from afar, and don’t recognize him. The same simple, righteous and God-fearing individual who was once very wealthy, and had a large and harmonious family, was now sitting alone “amidst the ashes”, using “a shard of pottery to scratch himself”.
The verses at the end of chapter 2 of the Book of Job contain an expansive description of the things that Job’s friends do to console Job and identify with his grief. This description contains a number of acts that later become part of the Jewish laws concerning grief and mourning that have been in practice for generations, including: the rending of garments, sitting on the floor for seven days, placing ash on the mourner’s head, refraining from addressing the mourner until the mourner starts a conversation, and, of course, weeping. The apparent empathy Job’s friends feel for him seem to make them role-models for anyone interested in consoling mourners. This idea, however, is subject to revised interpretation once we delve into their actions through a careful reading of the text.
By comparing this episode of comforting the bereaved with other passages of consolation we find this instance with Job and his so-called friends to be an extreme departure from the Biblical literary convention.
It is glaringly hyperbolic and thus rather suspicious that there are many more expressions of mourning in these verses than in any other episode recounted anywhere in the biblical text (except for the description in the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 27, where an entire nation is engaged in mourning over its fate at the end of days). Moreover, most of the acts of empathy performed by Job’s friends are things that mourners tend to do, not those consoling them, Thus, their demonstrative identification with his suffering actually constitutes the equivalent of emotional trespassing. All this is hardly indicative of great sensitivity.
Most surprisingly, the verses in Job Chapter 2 relate the idea of “dust on the head” with an unexpected and exaggerated description: “and [the friends] threw dust into the air heavenward onto their heads.” Everywhere else mourning is described, the text uses the verb “to raise” (leha’alot), and not “to throw” (lizrok), and it certainly doesn’t involve throwing ashes into the air or toward the heavens. Without a doubt, this verse, “and [the friends] threw dust into the air heavenward onto their heads”, refers the readers back to the portion of the week, Parashat Va’era, and the verses concerning the plague of boils that Moses was commanded to bring down upon the entire land of Egypt, through the ritual described in the text: “Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall be upon them boils…” (Exodus 9:8-10).
What’s intriguing about this allusion is that the same act that leads to the plague of boils in the Book of Exodus appears as an act of condolence over the plague of boils mentioned in the Book of Job!
A possible solution to this enigma has been proposed by the late Professor Meir Weiss. Weiss suggests that in homeopathic medicine and in the magical rituals of primitive cultures, just as a particular phenomenon can be caused by a particular action, by repeating that action, the opposite effect can be achieved. Today, we understand how, by injecting a pathogenic virus, we can cause the body to produce antibodies that will help the treated individual acquire immunity to the disease, or become cured of it. Yet without completely understanding how all of this works, very early on, the Talmudic text specifies a cure for rabies, which calls for feeding a person bitten by a rabid dog the diaphragm of that dog. In his article on the beginning of the Book of Job (in his book, Mikra’ot ke-Havanatam), Professor Weiss explains the conduct of Job’s friends, throwing ashes into the air, referring to the above theory known as sympathetic magic. They had hoped to cure him of his boils by repeating the formulaic magical act that had been used to produce boils.
Suggesting a different approach to this inter-textual allusion, I feel that if we read carefully and see this initial introduction to the relationship between Job and his friends as predictive or foreshadowing of the rest of the book, we will come to a different conclusion.
As it would seem, Job’s friends console him in almost each of the chapters of the book, when they “solve” the problem of theodicy, (i.e. why righteous people suffer). In their misguided attempts to free Job of his existential pain, they generally choose between two egregious approaches. In some chapters they tell him that there is no such thing as a righteous person who suffers, because he (Job) is not a righteous person. In other rounds of their philosophical symposia, they tell Job that what he suffers from isn’t truly bad – and he would know this if he could only attain the proper perspective. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this type of consolation can confirm that it only makes the pain even worse. Indeed, at the end of the Book of Job (chapter 42), Hashem censures Job’s friends twice, “for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job”. Job’s friends thus become the archetype for insensitivity, and they become the literary source of the sin of “verbal mistreatment (ona’at devarim)” discussed in Tractate Bava Metzi’ah, 58a.
Outwardly, Job’s friends seem to be “consoling” him, but through their insensitivity they only make matters worse. Ironically, it is precisely the very behaviors that were intended to alleviate Job’s pain, that exacerbate his suffering.
Consequently, no allusion could be more ironic nor more accurate and stinging than invoking by subtle associative wording the very act that inflicted boils in a description of their attempt to comfort the boil – stricken Job.
By cleverly deploying an illusion to the plague of boils in our Torah portion, the author of the Book of Job creates an ironic subtext to this scene of “consolation that causes unintended further pain”, while simultaneously creating the perfect foreshadowing of the complex and fraught relationship between Job and his friends throughout the book.