PARASHAT VAERA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 24, 2009 – 28 Tevet 5769
Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 7:8 -- 8:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 357; Hertz p. 236)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 370 Hertz p. 244)
Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey
Torah Portion Summary
God reminds Moses of the covenant He made with the patriarchs and tells him that the time has come for God to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Even so, Moses resists the charge God gives him to go to Pharaoh, saying “the Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” Still, God instructs Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh and deliver the Israelites from Egypt. The Torah then recounts the genealogy of the tribe of Levi.
God tells Moses, who again protests that he has a speech impediment, that Aaron will serve as his spokesman. God also tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart and that Egypt will be punished severely before God finally brings the Israelites out.
Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh, demonstrating the sign God had given them. When Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate this sign, turning their own rods into serpents, Pharaoh dismisses Moses and Aaron. Now the plagues begin – blood, frogs, lice, and more. As each plague afflicts Egypt, Pharaoh appears to relent, but once the plague has stopped, he reneges on his promise to allow the Israelites to go.
After the seventh plague, hail, Pharaoh appears to be beaten. He says to Moses and Aaron, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong... I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” But yet again, once the hail stops, Pharaoh refuses to let the people go.
1. Dom Tz'fardei-a, Kinnim...
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel [literally, produce a marvel for you],’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.” (Exodus 7:8-9)
- “Evil does not come from God” and whatever God does is for the good. However, it all depends on the one person involved and his deeds. What is bad for one person – because he has not behaved properly – is good for another who has behaved properly. The same was true for the plagues; they were bad for Egypt but good for Israel. When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel for you’” – something which will be good for you . . . then “You shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.” – i.e. the rod of God turns into a serpent when it is in the presence of a person such as Pharaoh. Ohev Yisrael [Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatov, d. 1825, Poland])
- Why were the waters first transformed into blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile. Said the Holy Blessed One: I shall strike first his god, then his nation! As the saying goes: Strike the god and the priests will tremble! (Shemot Rabbah 9:9)
- Why did He bring upon them the plague of blood? Because they threw the children of the Israelites into the river; as it is written: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile.” (1:22) Therefore He punished them through the waters of the Nile. (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 19)
- All that the Egyptians planned against the Israelites, the Holy One brought upon their own persons. The Egyptians intended Israelites to draw water for them. So “He turned their rivers into blood” (Tehillim 78:44). The Egyptians intended Israelites to carry wares for them. So He brought frogs, which chewed up those wares. The Egyptians intended Israelites to till the soil for them. So He made the soil swarm with lice... (Tanhuma Bo 4)
- Had God so willed it, He could have led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt without imposing any punishment on the Egyptians. Being all-powerful, God could have instructed Moses to lead the Israelites out while keeping the Egyptian army paralyzed. This, however, is not the Lord’s wish. Because the Egyptians had acted cruelly, God wishes to punish them. A nation that drowned newborn male infants in the Nile does not deserve to escape divine wrath. Indeed, the first plague strikes at the Nile – the scene of Egypt’s cruelest crime against the Israelites – turning it into blood. Bible scholar Uriel Simon has noted to me the first plague’s powerful symbolism. Undoubtedly, there were Egyptians who denied the evil their government was doing to the Israelites. Like nineteenth-century Southern slave owners who spoke of how slavery supposedly benefited “primitive” blacks, and who ignored or minimized the cruelties of many slave masters and the destruction of many black families, so there were Egyptians who ignored the evil done in their name. The first plague makes such denial impossible. For decades Israelite infants had disappeared in the Nile. Now the Nile turns to blood, “surfacing” the crimes committed there. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Biblical Literacy,” p. 106)
Sparks for Discussion
Why did God choose to bring the Israelites out of Egypt by means of the ten plagues? Was it to make a theological point – there is only one true God? Was it justifiable punishment for what the Egyptians had done, with perhaps a bit of revenge? Was it midah keneged midah – measure for measure, making the punishment fit the crime? Were the plagues also intended to provide lessons for the Israelites? What were they, and we, meant to learn?
Rabbi Telushkin says that the plagues made it impossible for the Egyptians to deny what was being done in their name. Do citizens of a country bear some measure of responsibility for what their leaders do? Does it matter if that country is a democracy or a dictatorship? Imagine you were an ordinary Egyptian. What, if anything, would you have done to protest the treatment of the Israelite slaves? What if you knew that anyone who had protested suddenly were never heard from again (and their families weren’t either)? Would you have tried to leave? Would you have kept your head down and tried to survive? How much should good people be expected to sacrifice to speak out against injustice?
2. And What Have You Done for Me Lately?
And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt – its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water – that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” (Exodus 7:19)
- Rabbi Tanhum taught: Why were the waters not smitten by Moses himself? Because the Holy One said to Moses: It is not proper that the waters that protected you when you were cast into the river should now be smitten by you. As you live, they shall be smitten by none other than Aaron. (Shemot Rabbah 9:10)
- Rabbi Tanhum taught: It is not proper that the dust that protected you when you killed the Egyptian should be smitten by you. Therefore, these three plagues [blood, frogs, lice] were brought about by means of Aaron. (Shemot Rabbah 10:7)
- Water is an inanimate object that does not have free will. When something floats in water and does not sink, it would not occur to us to give thanks to the water for its buoyancy. Nevertheless, we learn from this verse that if a person derives pleasure from an object, he should show his gratitude by being careful not to cause harm or damage to the object, even though it would not suffer pain... Since this is true concerning inanimate objects, all the more so we must show gratitude toward people who have shown us kindness. (Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz) (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “Love Your Neighbor,” pp. 140-141.)
- Don’t point to an institution’s imperfections as reason for not acknowledging the good it has done you. The Talmud teaches, “Cast no mud into the well from which you have drunk” (Bava Kamma 92b). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that if you studied at a school, even if you come to disagree with the school’s approach later, don’t “throw mud at it” and condemn it because of those aspects of the institution with which you now disagree. This dictum is relevant as well for those who have changed their religious orientation. For example, some Jews who grow up Orthodox later leave for other denominations, while others who grow up Reform, Conservative, or unaffiliated later become Orthodox. Such people often speak with bitterness of the movements in which they were raised, but they should also acknowledge whatever good they gained from their earlier experiences. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume I: You Shall Be Holy,” p. 107)
Sparks for Discussion
Hakarat ha-tov (acknowledging the good others have done for you) is not difficult when those to whom you owe thanks are well-loved friends and family. What do we owe to those who are no longer members of that group – an ex-spouse, an estranged relative, a former business colleague from who you parted on bad terms? How should we speak about them?
Rabbi Telushkin applies this notion to people who have changed the religious movement to which they belong. We might expand this idea to recognize that we have something worthwhile to learn from all the streams of Judaism even if we disagree with much of their philosophy and practice. What can we learn from Reform, Orthodox, Hasidic, and cultural Jews? What should we appreciate about our own less-than-perfect Conservative movement?