Archive for the '2.02 VaEra' Category

Guns, Germs, and Torah: Diamond and VaEra

One of my favorite writers is Jared Diamond. I find his unique vantage point of anthropology and history sheds such interesting understanding our human condition. I think I have read every book he has written.I was introduced to his writing through his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.Image result for guns germs and steel quote domesticated animals

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences. There he wrote:

Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and balanced biological package for intensive food production. That package comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, with 20—25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main protein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent’s first farmers came to meet humanity’s basic economic needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport. (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies)

I was thinking about the importance of domestic animals in human history when reading about the fifth plague in VaEra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

The Lord said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.
For if you refuse to let them go, and continue to hold them, then the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock in the fields—the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep—with a very severe pestilence. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites. The Lord has fixed the time: tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.’” And the Lord did so the next day: all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not a beast died. (Exodus 9:1–6)

Here we see the central role that domesticated animals play in the life of their society.

The story of Yosef is the story of the emergence of Egypt as a wheat super power in the Fertile Crescent. The fifth plague is the story of the reorganizing of the power of the Fertile Crescent around domestic animals. Ultimately this led to their Israelites liberation from slavery and Egypt’s collapse at Red Sea ( read transportation here).

For Diamond the critical components for advancing as a society are having carbohydrates, proteins, fats, clothing, traction, and transport. It seems that the Torah supports this hypothesis. The only difference seems to be that our society also demands a purpose in order to advance. The Israelites are not liberated to just be free from servitude, but our civilization it driven by our purpose of being free to get the Torah Sinai in order to serve God.  In this context it seems that Diamond gives us a whole new read to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching, ” If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. ” (Avot 3:17)

Advertisements

Almond Prequel: On the Collapse of Empire

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read about the plagues. Aaron’s encounter with Pharoah’s magicians is an interesting prequel to the plagues. There we read:

Aaron cast down his staff 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 staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staves.(Exodus 7:10-12)

What is the significance of it being Aaron’s staff and not Moshe’s? What is the meaning of this prequel to the plagues?

Later in the book of Numbers we read that Aaron’s staff blooms into an almond branch (Numbers 17: 23). The almond tree is thought to grow very quickly. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, we learn that the rabbis thought that it took 21 days from the first bloom of the almond tree until it bore fruit (TJ Taanit 4:7). This period of 21 days corresponds to the time between the breaching of the wall in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Thus, there is a connection between the collapse of the Second Commonwealth and the almond tree.

With all of this in mind, what was the significance of Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh? Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaron was also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires.

As I have quoted a couple of times before, in a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion the new King of Egypt did not remember Yosef and enslaved the people out of fear. There we read:
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.( Exodus 1:10)
Is it possible to understand this in light of Justice Souter’s insight? Was there really a reason for Egypt to fear their enemies, let alone that the Israelites would join them? Maybe this tyrant only became king because he enslaved the Israelites.  Like Augustus and Trump, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, this new King came forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve their problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. As we see with the plagues, the destruction of Egypt is not because the Israelites joined a foreign invasion, rather the process of the plagues Egypt was destroyed from the inside out. Aaron presents his almond staff to express how Egypt will collapse. It is a cautionary tale. 

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


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 180 other followers

Archive By Topic

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: