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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vaera (Shabbat Rosh Hodesh)
January 16, 2010 – 1 Shevat 5770

Annual (Ex. 6:2-9:35): Etz Hayim p. 351; Hertz p. 232
Triennial (Ex. 8:16-9:35): Etz Hayim p. 362; Hertz p. 240
Maftir (Num. 28:9-15): Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Isaiah 66:1-24): Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 recounts the genealogy of the tribe of Levi.

God tells Moses, who protests again, citing his 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 of 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. The Great Dictator

And the Lord said to Moses, “Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me.’” (Exodus 8:16)

  1. “Present yourself” (hityatzeiv – stand) Being a man of great humility, Moses was accustomed to bow to all men in greeting. Therefore the Lord found it necessary to command him explicitly to “stand before Pharaoh.” “When you go before Pharaoh,” the Lord told Moses, “stand erect before him and do not bow to him in greeting, for you are not to show him even the slightest sign of respect.” (Or HaHayyim (Rabbi Hayyim Ibn Attar), 1696-1743, Morocco and Israel)
  2. Only in the morning did he go out to the water, because this wicked one used to boast that he was a god and did not need to relieve himself; therefore he used to go early in the morning to the water [when there was no one to see him]. God, therefore, told Moses to catch him just at the critical moment. (Shemot Rabbah 9:8)
  3. Avitol the scribe said in the name of Rav: The Pharaoh of Moses’ day was a cubit [tall]. His beard was a cubit, and his male member a cubit and a handspan... to fulfill that which is stated, “[God rules over the kingdom of man] and He appoints the lowest of men over it” (Daniel 4:14) (Talmud Moed Katan 18a)
  4. Note: Each “heil” is accompanied by a Bronx cheer.
    When der fuehrer says we is de master race,
    We heil (pffft), heil (pffft) right in der fuehrer’s face.
    Not to love der fuehrer is a great disgrace,
    So we heil (pffft), heil (pffft) right in der fuehrer’s face.
    When Herr Goebbels says we own the world and space,
    We heil (pffft), heil (pffft) right in Herr Goebbels’ face.
    When Herr Goering says they’ll never bomb dis place,
    We heil (pffft), heil (pffft) right in Herr Goering’s face. (Der Fuehrer’s Face, Spike Jones & His City Slickers, 1942)

Sparks for Discussion

The passages from Shemot Rabbah and Moed Katan allow us to imagine the great and terrible Pharaoh squirming like a pre-schooler in need of the potty or constantly tripping over his grotesque penis. What do you suppose their authors had in mind? Do you think that mockery is an effective tool against tyrants and tyranny? Under what circumstances? Are there cases in which mockery and ridicule are inappropriate or offensive?

2. Bending and Breaking

Now the flax and barley were ruined, for the barley was on the ear and the flax was in bud; but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, for they ripen late. (Exodus 9:31-32)

  1. [The barley] had already ripened and stood on its [hardened] stalks, and they were broken and fell; and similarly the flax was already grown and stood hard in its buds... [The wheat and emmer] ripen late and they were still flexible. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. At all times let a person be supple as the reed and not rigid as the cedar (Talmud Ta’anit 20b). A reed, when all the winds come and blow upon it, bends with them; when the winds are still, the reed is again upright in its place. And the end of this reed? Its good fortune is to be used as the pen that writes the Torah scroll. The cedar, however, does not remain standing in its place; for as soon as the south wind blows, it uproots it and tears it down. And the end of the cedar? Loggers come upon it and chop it up and use it to cover the housetops – and what remains, they cast to the flames. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 41)
  3. If your wife is short, bend down and hear her whisper. (Talmud Bava Metzia 59a)
  4. Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: It is forbidden to compromise [in a dispute before the court], and he who compromises commits a sin. The law must prevail, even if it involves cutting through a mountain, for it is said, “Judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:17). ... Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah said: Settlement by compromise is a meritorious act, for it is written, “Execute the judgment of truth and of peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). But is it not true that where there is [strict] justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no [strict] justice? However, what is the kind of justice with which peace can abide? You must admit, it is justice through compromise. (Talmud Sanhedrin 6b)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators praise flexibility and the willingness to compromise, pointing out that rigidity leads to disaster. Do you agree? When should a person be willing to bend? Are there ideals and principles that a person should refuse to compromise, even at the risk of breaking? What is the impact on life if everything is subject to compromise? How do you decide when to say “No!”?

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