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Torah Sparks

January 21, 2012 – 26 Tevet 5772

Annual: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial: Exodus 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 Joseph Prouser

God tells Moses again about his mission – he must demand that Pharaoh release his Israelite slaves. God also tells Moses 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 assist his 80-year-old brother, Moses, and instructs the brothers to perform a “wonder” in Pharaoh’s court to bolster their credibility: turn Aaron’s walking staff into a serpent. When Pharaoh’s court magicians perform the same trick, Moses’ serpent swallows the serpents the Egyptians produce.

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. Pharaoh’s magicians are able to replicate the first two plagues. They turn water into blood, although the Egyptian people already were struggling to find water. When the land was inundated with frogs, the magicians compound the crisis by bringing still more frogs.

The third plague, lice, mercifully is beyond the Egyptian wizards’ capacity, though they do attempt to create more such vermin. The magicians 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 it entirely. The plague of cattle disease, which also struck only 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: “Field Promotion”

“The Lord replied to Moses: ‘See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.’” (Exodus 7:1)

Derash: Study

“The role of God to Pharaoh – That is, as judge and punisher, to inflict the plagues and suffering upon him.” (Rashi)

“Moses is to fill the role of God in negotiations with Pharaoh, who claimed divinity for himself. Moses’ divinely endowed power and authority will expose the hollowness of that claim.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“If God is God, there can be no others… We might distill the entire Torah down to that life-changing but fleeting realization. The Torah is the story of what happens to people when they forget about that and when they remember it again. I’m God; you’re not.” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

“A man is a little thing while he works by and for himself, but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice, he is godlike.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) “The prophet and the martyr do not see the hooting throng. Their eyes are fixed on the eternities.” (Benjamin Cardozo)

Questions for Discussion

Rashi associates the term “God” exclusively with punishment and the infliction of human suffering! Is this interpretation offensive? How else might we understand Moses’ “God-like” function in Pharaoh’s court?

How does the Torah (and the broader Jewish tradition) go to great lengths to demonstrate that Moses was very much human – a “mere” mortal?

How flattering is Aaron’s designation as Moses’ prophet? Does this simply reinforce Aaron’s subservience? Does it attribute eternal values and concerns to him, as suggested by Cardozo?

If Moses’ mission is to disabuse Pharaoh of his delusions of divinity, is appointing Moses as a “God” to the Egyptian king the most effective tactic? Does Moses show Pharaoh the truth by succeeding in his “divine” role – or by demonstrating that no human can succeed in pursuit of divinity? How might Rabbi Kushner and Professor Sarna approach these questions?

How do we properly aspire to godliness (as opposed to divinity!!)? What parallels and applications does Emerson’s comment have in Jewish life?

Theme #2: “Digital Media”

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.” (Exodus 8:15)

Derash: Study

“‘It is the finger of God!’ The aim of the first group of plagues – ‘in order that you will know that I am God’ - has been achieved. It should be added that it was specifically the Egyptians who first needed to be taught about the existence of a transcendental Divine Cause, for - as opposed to other ancient Middle Eastern religions - Egyptian culture regarded the king himself as a god. This is highlighted in the haftara of parashat Va’era - Yechezkel’s prophecy of punishment for Egypt, in which we read, ‘Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh - king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of his river, who said, The river is mine; I made it for myself.’” (Rabbi Amnon Bazak)

“The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” (President John F. Kennedy)

“It is only in misery that we recognize the hand of God leading good men to good.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“That night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her.
‘Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me?’
‘I can’t sleep on occasion.’
‘Why? Do you see that big hand pointing a finger at you?’
‘Yes. Sometimes.’” (From the movie “Doubt”)

Questions for Discussion

What is the significance of the peculiar metaphor “the finger of God”? Does God’s “finger” accuse (as in “Doubt”)? Does it point us in the right direction (as in Goethe)? Does it indicate the ultimate source of human freedom and dignity (as in Kennedy’s usage)? Does it represent the limitations of human power and self-determination (as in Rabbi Bazak) – perhaps explaining why just a finger is mentioned, God’s whole hand being more than is required to steer the course of human events? Do all of these nuances apply simultaneously to our text?

How does the reference to God’s finger here differ from the same term in Exodus 31:18, where the Torah indicates that the Decalogue was inscribed on the Tablets with “God’s finger”? How do these two verses inform and interpret each other? Why did the Egyptian court magicians come to their realization about God’s role at this particular juncture? When does Pharaoh come to share their insight? The Egyptian people? The Israelites?

What events or experiences have led you to conclude (even if you use other words) that “this is the finger of God”?

Historic Note

Parshat Vaera, read on January 21, 2012, includes a graphic description of the sixth plague: “an inflammation breaking out in boils on man and beast throughout the land of Egypt. The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation.” On January 21, 1677, America’s first medical publication – a pamphlet about smallpox – was released in Boston.

Halachah L’Maaseh

In Ashkenazi practice, memorial prayers for the dead (El Malei Rachamim), as well as Av Ha-Rachamim, a prayer recalling martyrs of the Jewish people, are omitted on Shabbat Mevarchim – the Sabbath preceding rosh chodesh, and on which a blessing announcing the new moon is included in the Torah service (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 284:7; Mishnah Berurah 284:17). These somber prayers are recited, however, on the Sabbaths when the months of Iyar and Sivan are announced, as these months are associated with extensive massacres and martyrdoms dating to the First Crusade. Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Ha-Kohen Kook, son of the saintly Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, taught that following the grievous national losses and unrelenting martyrdom of the Holocaust period, Av Ha-Rachamim should now be recited every Shabbat, whether or not the blessing for the new moon is scheduled.

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