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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vaera (Shabbat Rosh Hodesh)
January 12, 2013 – 1 Shevat 5773

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 Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

God repeats Moses' 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 Parashat Vaera. Pharaoh's magiciarns are able to replicate the first two plagues. They turn water into blood and the magicians compound the frog crisis by bringing still more frogs. It should be noted 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 this record length.

The third plague, lice, 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. The meaning of arov is unclear. Most Jewish translations assert the term refers to packs of wild animals; 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. 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: "Work Related Injury"

"But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage." (Exodus 6:9)

Derash: Study

"It was not because they did not believe God or believe in God's prophet that they didn't listen. Rather, they didn't pay attention to his words, because their spirits were crushed, like a person whose soul is crushed because of his misery and he doesn't want to live another moment in his pain, even though he knows it will go away later." (Ramban)

"The Jewish people were quite capable of listening to Moshe and his message— capable but unwilling... To accept Moshe's message would mean they would have to change from passively accepting their fate to actively shaping it. They could no longer blame their misfortune on others, nor could they claim victimhood for their misery. Their troubles would be of their own making. And this was very scary. It is so much easier to blame others rather than take responsibility oneself! Fear, not of life under a tyrant but of life without one, had paralyzed the Jewish nation." (Rabbi Jay Kelman)

"What is this ‘kotzer ruach' syndrome that prevents man from wanting to go free and to resist happiness? It seems that sometimes we want to help ourselves or be helped, but we are so exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually, we are so deeply enslaved, that we cannot grasp the possibility of a better reality. This was our situation in Egypt, and we could not listen to Moshe." (Rabbi Yaacov Haber)

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." (Winston Churchill)

"There are souls which fall from heaven like flowers, but ere they bloom are crushed under the foul tread of some brutal hoof." (Jean Paul)

Questions for Discussion

Why did God wait until the slaves were in such a low spiritual state to intervene and send His prophet to free them?

How does Rabbi Kelman's insight regarding Jewish fear of life without a tyrant find expression in the Diaspora today? How does this question relate to Israeli society?

What possibilities "of a better reality" has the Jewish community at times failed to grasp? Are there missed opportunities which you attribute to a personal sense of emotional or spiritual depletion? Are there times you have lacked the courage "to sit down and listen?" How might you now redress those missed opportunities… or avoid similar missteps in the future?

Explore Ramban's comparison of the Israelite slaves' condition to that of a sick person, miserable and dispirited. Why was Israel resistant to the "course of treatment"… the "cure" prescribed by Moses?

Theme #2: "Green with Envy?"

"But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought more frogs upon the Land of Egypt." (Exodus 8:3)

Derash: Study

"The wizards' actions and Pharaoh's reaction to them seem odd; even if there were room to bring more frogs into Egypt (note that the text testifies that after Aaron effected the plague, the land of Egypt was "covered"), what would be the point of this plague. Surely no one would notice more frogs and identify that they were summoned forth by the royal magicians – and, even if that were the case, the same question asked above confronts us – what is the purpose of more agents of destruction and stench? If the wizards were going to help Pharaoh, they should have removed the frogs and reversed the Hebrews' leaders' plague." (Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom)

Pharaoh's magicians cannot remove the frogs; they can only create more frogs, making matters even worse. Trying to spite Moses, they make their own lot worse. It is easier to augment a plague (whether conflict, gossip, or greed) than to end one." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble." (Samuel Johnson)

"Freedom without moral commitment is aimless and promptly self-destructive." (John W. Gardner)

Questions for Discussion

Were the Egyptian magicians self-serving, self-destructive or both? What did they achieve through their participation in the plague of frogs? What had they hoped to accomplish? If they were truly unable to remove or undo this amphibious assault on Egypt, what was the most logical and productive course of action available to them?

Of what flaws in human nature are the magicians emblematic?

What useful role do the magicians play in the moral education of Pharaoh? In the redemption of the Jewish People?

Are there times when you (or organizations you admire) have compounded a crisis or conflict when it was in your power to improve the situation?

Why frogs? What characteristics of frogs made them especially appropriate instruments of divine punishment in Egypt?

Historic Note

In Parashat Vaera, read on January 12, 2013, Moses repeatedly petitions the despotic Pharaoh to free his Israelite slaves, to "let my people go," and is repeatedly rebuffed. On January 12, 1737, John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress and first to sign the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was born. The Declaration read, in part, "In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

Halachah L'Maaseh

In contradistinction to the first plague, it is often the lack of blood which "plagues" contemporary society with life-threatening medical challenges. Rabbi Joel Roth has ruled that blood donation "is a great mitzvah and should be greatly encouraged and lauded… It is permissible, indeed, desirable and praiseworthy, to donate blood to a blood bank for later use" (Rabbinical Assembly responsum: "Organ Donation: Live Donors – Blood and Bone Marrow"). A prayer or "kavanah" of sorts has been proposed to accompany the giving of blood: "Baruch eloheinu asher natan lanu maychochmato v'hishpia aleinu laazor livnay adam b'orach chayeinu v'af b'motaynu: Praised be our God who gives us wisdom and encourages us to help others by our way of living, and in our dying" (See Rabbi Chaim Stern, "On the Doorposts of Your House: Al Mezuzot Beitecha -- Prayers and Ceremonies for the Jewish Home").

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