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)
"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)
"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?
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.
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.)