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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAERA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 1, 2011 – 25 Tevet 5771

Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial: Ex. 6:2 -- 7:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 369 Hertz p. 244)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

God restates Moses' mission – he must demand that Pharaoh the release of his Israelite slaves. God also reassures His chosen prophet that He will fulfill His promises to the patriarchs. Moses describes his reluctance to approach Pharaoh, presciently fearing that neither the tyrant nor the dispirited Israelites will listen to him. God assigns 83-year-old Aaron to accompany and to assist his 80-year-old brother, Moses, and instructs the brothers to perform a "wonder" in Pharaoh's court to bolster their credibility: they are to turn Aaron's walking staff into a serpent (in Hebrew, tanin – a large reptile of some sort). When Pharaoh's court magicians perform the same trick, Moses' serpent swallows the serpents produced by the Egyptians.

When Pharaoh remains intransigent despite this marvel, Moses and Aaron initiate a series of plagues. Seven of the ten plagues are included in Parshat Vaera. As with the rod-turned-reptile, Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the first two plagues. They handily – but unwisely – turn water into blood, although the Egyptian people already were struggling to find water. Similarly, although the land was inundated with frogs during the second plague, the magicians compound the crisis by bringing about still more frogs. It should be noted (perhaps reflecting the extent of the frog infestation) that the longest word in the Torah appears in the description of the second plague: uv'misharotecha – "and in your kneading bowls" – the only ten-letter word in the Torah (Exodus 7:28). For some reason, reference works commonly fail properly to recognize the record length of this sesquipedalian scriptural term, listing any of a number of nine-letter words instead!

The third plague, lice, mercifully is beyond the Egyptian wizards' capacity, though they do attempt to create more such vermin: the very last thing to be desired during an infestation of lice – notwithstanding Pharaoh's original plan to "deal shrewdly" or "wisely" (Exodus 1:10) with his slaves! In contrast to their ill-advised tactics, the magicians do infer from their magical limitations that a stronger force indeed is at work: "This is the finger of God," they concede. Pharaoh tragically, is far slower to learn this crucial lesson or to conduct himself accordingly.

Translators debate the nature of the fourth plague (in Hebrew, arov). Most Jewish translations assert the term refers to packs of wild animals, while many Christian translations indicate swarms of insects. Whatever the nature of the plague, its divine origins are further indicated by the fact that Goshen, where the slaves live, is spared entirely from the event. The plague of cattle disease (that similarly struck only at Egyptian animals) is followed by the plagues of boils and hail, which also were kept from harming Israelites in body or property. Inexplicably, though the text insists that all Egyptian livestock perished during the cattle disease epidemic, the descriptions of both the boils and the fiery hail include afflicted Egyptian animals. After each devastating national blow, Pharaoh persists in defying God by refusing to free the slaves, allowing God's promised punishments to continue in full measure.

Theme #1: "Mission Manumission"

"I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage… and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians." (Exodus 6:6-7)

Derash: Study

"The People Israel has a unique forbearance in their ability to endure exile. In a time of redemption, however, they experience an awakening making it impossible further to tolerate exile. That impatience is itself one of the signs of the Redemption." (Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap)

"Overcoming oppression and cruelty, ending war and slavery – nothing less will establish the credibility of God. Neither spirituality nor teaching about transcendence will have lasting validity as long as human misery remains rampant." (Rabbi Yitz Greenberg)

"God is responsible for having created a world in which man is free to make history. There must be a dimension beyond history in which all suffering finds its redemption through God. This is essential to the faith of a Jew. The Jew does not doubt God's presence, though he is unable to set limits to the duration and intensity of His absence." (Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits)

"Lincoln's greatest act of transformation was the Emancipation Proclamation, and not surprisingly, it's the first time Lincoln's personal relationship with God appears to have crept into his decision making. Initially Lincoln resisted freeing the slaves, deeming such an act unnecessary. But as the war proceeded, Lincoln focused increasingly on the moral dimension of slavery and eventually cast his decision to free the slaves as an outgrowth of his relationship with God. On September 22, 1862, following the battle of Antietam, Lincoln called a special session of his cabinet and announced, 'I made a solemn vow before God,' that if the Confederates were driven out of Maryland, 'I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.' The head of the navy wrote in his diary that the move was Lincoln's vow, a 'covenant" with God.'" (Bruce Feiler, American Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America)

"Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent." (Heinrich Heine)

Questions for Discussion:

Did God "hear" the plight of Israel in the early stages of the Exodus – or was Israel's growing readiness for liberation, its resistance to enslavement and persecution, actually the first stirrings of a Jewish people finally attuned to God's voice? How is this mutuality expressed in Jewish thought and practice?

What religious and communal implications derive from Rabbi Greenberg's statement about God's "credibility"? How do we go about balancing these social obligations with "spirituality" and "teaching about transcendence"?

Feiler argues that Abraham Lincoln was at the height of his theological consciousness when he determined to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. When else in American history has the imagery of the Exodus spoken to American leaders and their constituents? How is it that the founding narrative of Jewish peoplehood came to play so decisive a role in the historiography of the United States? How do we understand the central role of God to the Exodus narrative in the context of the biblical contours of America's selfperception?

Is every group claiming aggrieved status as a persecuted minority worthy of Jewish communal concern and intervention, and truly comparable to the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt? How has this narrative device been used to the patent injury of the Jewish people?

Theme #2: "Automaton or Autonomous Autocrat?"

"I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 7:3)

Deresh: Study

"The intrusion runs roughshod over the basic principle of free will on which the entire superstructure of Jewish law rests. Without the ability to make the good prevail in us or to control our passions, we can hardly be held accountable by God for our actions... For all God's grandeur, Judaism never denied humanity its own space, in which its destiny, individually and collectively, is shaped exclusively by human hands." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"It is also possible that one commit a grave sin or many sins so that the true judge (God) determines that just punishment for such sins, done willfully and knowingly, is preventing the sinner from the way of repentance. God prevents the individual from repenting so that he dies and is destroyed in the sins that he committed. Therefore, it is written in the Torah: 'I will stiffen Pharaoh's heart,' because he sinned earlier and acted wickedly toward Israel when they dwelled increase.' Therefore, God judged that they be prevented from repenting so that in his land, as it says: 'Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they might not they be punished. Therefore, God hardened his heart." (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 6:4-6)

"God has a particular right over the hearts of great men… When He pleases to touch them he ravishes them and lets them not speak nor breathe but for His glory." (Heloise, 12th century abbess, France)

"Destiny, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and a fool's excuse for failure." (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

"Man has freedom, he can choose God or reject God, he can lead the world to perdition and to redemption. The creation of this being Man with such power of freedom means that God has made room for a co-determining power alongside of Himself." (Henry Slominsky)

Questions for Discussion:

Was Pharaoh mistreated and exploited by God? How might Ambrose Bierce and Maimonides respond to this question?

In what ways do our sins lead to a loss of free will? At what point in this process do we become more – or less – morally culpable for our misdeeds?

Explain Heloise's assertion about God's treatment of "great men." What are some historical examples of this "particular divine right"? How does this theological perspective relate to "great" leaders who have perpetrated profound evil? Heloise was a rough contemporary of Maimonides; how are their statements alike? Did God "ravish" Pharaoh? Moses? Both?

Henry Smolinsky and Chancellor Schorsch seem to emphasize the moral sovereignty enjoyed by human beings. How can this view be applied to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart? Who else in the Bible embodies our role as "a co-determining power" with God? How do we – as individuals and Jewish communities – "choose" or "reject" God?

Historic Note

Parshat Vaera – including its famous refrain "Let My people go" – is read on January 1, 2010. The Emancipation Proclamation – which reprised and arguably found its inspiration in the biblical text – took effect on January 1, 1863.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Rabbi Yochanan said: The four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder are based on the four expressions of redemption used by the Torah in reference to the Exodus: I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will take you. No fifth cup was instituted to correspond to the fifth expression of redemption: I will bring you (Exodus 6:8), though the matter is debated by the rishonim (rabbinic authorities from the period preceding the Shulchan Aruch). The "cup of Elijah" – corresponding to this fifth expression – we fill but do not drink, since the debate remains unresolved, and our redemption remains incomplete. (See Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:1.)


 
 
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