Archive for the '2.02 VaEra' Category

Pepe POTUS

Last week in parshat VaEra we learned about the plague of the frogs. There we read:

This is what the great Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials. ( Exodus 8:1–4)

A Midrash taught that the frogs were the most grievous of the ten plagues. The Midrash taught that the frogs destroyed the Egyptians’ bodies,  says “frogs . . . destroyed them” (Psalm 78:45) The frogs emasculated the Egyptians, as it says that the frogs would “come into . . . [the Egyptians’] bed-chamber, and upon [their] bed.” (Exodus 7:28)

The image of the emasculation and destruction from the frog has returned with Pepe a symbol of the alt-right.

I found a new one

Now more then ever we have reason to assume that the hatred, violence, and bigotry of the alt-right is going to continue to teem. Trump used the alt-right to get into power and I do not trust that he will be able to control it over his tenure as president, or maybe he does not want to control it. It seems that this time the frogs are not just all over the people and the officials, but that the frog is the official.

Heavy Stuff : The Weight of Our Current Situation

In the book of Exodus in an effort to free the Israelite slaves Moshe enacts plague after plague. It seems that just when Pharaoh might let them go, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he holds back from letting them go.  Here is VaEra, this week’s torah portion,  we read:

And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was kaved- heavy, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)

A couple of week’s ago in Vayechi we read about the end of Israel’s life when he has gathered his children to give them blessings. There we read:

Now the eyes of Israel were kavdo – heavy for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. (Genesis 48:10)

What is the connection between Pharaoh’s heart being kaved- heavy and Israel the kavdo – of Isreal’s eyes?

In the strange days we are living I am acutely aware of the echo chambers we have created for ourselves. We give the voices the conform to our beliefs more weight then those that challenge us.  We rarely come into contact with ideas or people that push back and make us see opinions other then those we already hold sacred. We are blinded and stuck in our ideological silos. Regardless if our intentions are for a blessing like Israel with his children or for a curse like Pharaoh to his Israelite slaves, we are stuck under the weight of our own limited experience of the world.  We will only return to civil discourse when we seek out voices different then our own. Through this discourse we will rebuild trust. It is only through this trust that we can all tell the difference between truth and lies. It is only when we listen with empathy to the other that we will see how we might find our way out of our current situation.

 

Egypt’s Original Sin

A few weeks ago when reading Miketz we learn that Pharaoh is being vexed by two strange dreams. His cup-bearer recalls his experience of Yosef who correctly interpreted dreams in prison.  On the merit of Yosef ability to interpret Pharaoh will through the veil of the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker, Pharaoh brings Yosef to interpret his dreams. After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

While it might have been completely vexing for Pharaoh to interpret these dreams any other way, maybe we just say that because of our 20/20 hindsight of Yosef’s interpretation and it coming true.

I was thinking about that when reading VaEra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

‘When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then you shall say to Aaron: Take your rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it becomes a serpent.’ And Moshe and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not to them; as the Lord had spoken. ( Exodus 7:9- 13)

In light of the skinny cows eating the fat cows or the skinny ears eating the good ears, what could Pharaoh have been thinking when he saw this? This clearly is foretelling the end of Egypt. But you only have 20/20 hindsight when you remember what Yosef said. But as we read at the start of our story Pharaoh did not remember. There we read, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8) At its core this story pivots on this Egypt’s original sin of forgetting the interpreter .

 

 

Fire and Water: The Jewish Secret

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the plague of hail. Seeing that the wealth of Egypt came from Joseph being able to foresee the seven years of splendor followed by seven years of drought, this seems like an odd plague. In some way the Egyptians are being rewarded with rain (in another form) in an arid climate. It seems like more of a blessing then a curse. There we read:

So Moshe stretched forth his staff heavenward, and the Lord gave forth thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth, and the Lord rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been throughout the entire land of Egypt since it had become a nation. ( Exodus 9:23-24)

What did it mean, “flaming within the hail”? On this Rashi writes:

This was a miracle within a miracle. The fire and hail intermingled. Although hail is water, to perform the will of their Maker they made peace between themselves [that the hail did not extinguish the fire nor did the fire melt the hail]. — [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

It seems that while some of the plagues were punitive, this plague was really a sign. And not just any sign, but a miracle in a miracle. How much of the meaning of the plague about the media?

What is the meaning of the fire and the hail being “intermingled- M’Uravim”. We find the same root used in the Gemara we learn that “All Israel are responsible for another- Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh” (Shevuot 39a). At the outset of Moshe’s project to redeem the people of Israel, he had to unite a disparate group of slaves behind a common cause of their liberation. In this plague we see a miracle within a miracle. We see forging of the Jewish people into one unit.

In light of the ugly reemergence of antisemitism in Europe, it makes we pause and wonder if we need another plague of hail. Despite all of our differences throughout history, antisemitism has kept us all together. This reminds me of a famous quote by Mark Twain. He wrote:

”…If statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way. properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (“Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899)

Perhaps it is our ability to hold fire and water together that is the secret to our success.

Repugnant Cycle

In VaEra, next week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

But, maybe there is another way to see the Midrash that explains that the odor is measure for measure. Back in the stories in Genesis we read about when Rebecca helped Jacob steel the blessing from Esau. There we read:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.”So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and he blessed him. And he said, “Are you [indeed] my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”And he said, “Serve [it] to me that I may eat of the game of my son, so that my soul will bless you.” And he served him, and he ate, and he brought him wine, and he drank.And his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! ( Genesis 27:21-27)

Isaac is blind, but not stupid. We get a sense from the text that he knows that something is off. This is not Esau. It is as if he is Little Red Ridding Hood trying to figure out where her grandmother is, Isaac is trying to figure out if this is Esau or Jacob.  Jacob is unable to imitate Esau’s voice, but between the costume, feel of his hands, food, and drink he passes for Esau.  In a simple reading it was his smell that convinced Isaac.

Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving with smell, before the Israelites are worthy of redemption from Egypt their odor is exposed. The Israelites are shamed measure for measure.  In turn the Egyptians are shamed measure for measure. When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? What has been exposed about themselves?  What starts with the desire for blessing and affirmation expands out to cycle of shame and violence. There are powerful lessons here about the cycle of bullying- it does not smell very good.

– This post is linked to others on synesthesia

Full of It

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s back and forth arguing for the Israelites’  freedom with Pharaoh. There we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning; so, when he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and, behold, you have not heeded until now; thus said the Lord: In this you shall know that I am the Lord–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ (Exodus 7:14-18)

The simple meaning is that God is directing Moshe to have a power meeting with Pharaoh in the morning to negotiate their release from slavery.  That would make sense if they were meeting at Starbuck’s, but why is this meeting scheduled to happen at the water? Quoting the Midrash in reference to this Rashi  writes:

When he goes out to the water– to relive himself for Pharaoh would pretend to be a god and would say that he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and secretly tend to his  needs.  ( Shemot Rabbah 9:8)

In Rashi’s understanding Moshe is challenging Pharaoh’s very claim to power. Pharoah is not a god, rather  just an ordinary man. Moshe knows this because he grew up in Pharoah’s house. Moshe knows that Pharoah’s poop stinks just like everybody else. This is interesting in reference to how the Israelites understood their own standing in reference to smell earlier in the book. There we read:

HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants.(Exodus 5:21)

But more on this in another post. So for now, back to Pharoah doing his business in the water in the early morning. In light of Pharoah’s hardened heart and his resolve not to let the Israelites go, this image depicts Pharaoh as being constipated and not being able to let us go. It is as if Moshe is coming with prunes and Metamucil to encourage Pharaoh’s movement on the issue.

But joking aside, maybe there is even more going on here. Why is this the location that God wants Pharaoh to “know that I am the Lord”? Water is the site of extermination of all of the boys of Moshe’s generation at the hands of the Egyptians. Its seems fitting that the Egyptians will suffer through the plague of the water turning to blood. But water is not such a simple symbol in Moshe’s life. This water is also the site of Moshe’s salvation and the source of his name i.e. drawn from water. Why is this the site of engagement between Moshe and Pharaoh?

This reminds me of one of my favorite Aggadot. In Berachot we learn:

Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Yehoshua to a bathroom, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Said Ben Azzai to him (Rabbi Akiba), ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Rabbi Yehudah said to him, ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ‘ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.  ( Berachot 62a)

The most striking thing about this Gemarah is not that Rabbi Akiba learned Torah from Rabbi Yehoshua in the bathroom or even that Ben Azzai learns the same three things from Rabbi Akiba in the bathroom. It seems crazy that Ben Azzai admonished Rabbi Akiba for learning those lessons in that way only to follow Rabbi Akiba into the bathroom to learn the same lessons the same way. Some lessons can be taught in words and others need to be modeled. Needing to see Torah in action with our own eyes presents us with a great model for the best in experiential Jewish education, but that is also a topic for another time. Back to Moshe and Pharoah meeting in the bathroom.

We learn in the Gemara, “It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn”. What did  Moshe need to learn from Pharaoh that necessitated following him into the bathroom? I think there could be a number of answers to this question, but one might be that Moshe needed to come to peace the fact that he had nothing to learn from Pharaoh. Moshe is a complex character caught between the house of Pharaoh in which he was raised and his birth nation who are Pharaoh’s slaves. Moshe did just have contempt for the Egyptians, he loved them and they shared a culture. Pharaoh’s heart was already hardened , maybe having Moshe return to the place of his salvation and naming was to help Moshe develop his resolve and commitment to the Israelite nation. Pharaoh might have a great man, but truly great people have nothing to hide. Moshe needed to realize that the Torah was going to be given to his birth nation at Sinai and it was not coming out of Pharaoh no matter how much he pushed. There is a lot of Torah to be learned. We need our teachers to be the right role models. The wrong teachers are just full of it.

To Love or to be Loved

In VaEra, this weeks Torah portion, we read,” And God spoke to Moses and said to him” I am HaShem. I appeared to Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai, I did not make Myself known to them by My name HaShem”( Exodus 6:2- 3) Did the Patriarchs have a limited relationship with God compared to Moses? Rashi (Premiere Medieval Commentator) explains this in terms of  God’s having not fulfilled the mission of giving the people to the land of Canaan. In so doing El Shaddai would be realized as being truth- HaShem. But Moses neither sees the Truth of God bringing them in to the land or ever seeing/ knowing the unknowable Hashem. So I wanted to offer another reading of this apparent inequality of relationships.

It might be likened to lovers who are in love at first sight compared to the rest of us who need to work out our relationships. By and large the Patriarchs seem to be in covenantal relationship with God,  where as Moses and in turn the Israelites are in a dynamic relationship with God. But what is the quality of being in relationship with HaShem?

A number of years ago I worked as a chaplain in a hospital in New York City. There I met a lovely elderly French Jewish woman. During our conversations she asked me a profound question, “Is it better to be loved or to love?” While being loved is comfortable, it is not as rewarding or as risky as the proposition of being in love. We might feel that God is very distant from our lives, but maybe that theology itself is us expecting to be loved.  Where might me find the presence of God in our lives? Might it be better (even if riskier) for us to articulate where we want to see God in our lives.  Clearly few of us has a romantic relationship with God as might the Patriarchs, but the first step is recognizing what it is we are looking for. El Shaddai might not have a different type of relationship, it was the one the heard our cries. What are we crying for today? I am fearful, that we have all grown too apathetic to cry for anything any more.


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