Archive for the '2.02 VaEra' Category



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.

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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.

No Narrative No Nomos

Early in my own religious evolution I was swayed toward Orthodoxy by their a critique of Reform Judaism. It seemed artificial to separate ritual from moral law. In my experience keeping Shabbat itself made me a moral human being. How could one be judged separately? While I understood that people might not see any relevance in Jewish law in general, the line between these two areas of law seemed arbitrary. One would not need to make-believe that it was Judaism. There was no shame in being moral secular humanist. A Halachic mind  sees ritual life as an integrated context for moral living. This approach cultivated people to respond to the world systematically and habituated its adherents to behave justly. In retrospect I can see over time my own views grew in nuance. In general and now with all of the horrible religious coercion going on in Israel more than ever I would not make that claim for Orthodox Jews, but I  still would make the claim for those committed to living according to Halacha ( And yes for those following at home they are not the same).

As time went on and I spent more time in yeshivah, I was overcome by the what I found there. How many times did we skip through an aggadic section in the Gemara in pursuit of the Halachic section? The same people who lodged the above mentioned critique perpetrated the same division in their own lives.  Just like the Reformers, the Roshei Yeshiva (and most of Chazal) had trouble realizing that within learning these aggadot we are creating meaningful context for the law. Without these laws we lose boundaries; without the stories we lose direction.

At the start of Genesis Rashi asks why the story of the Bible starts with the creation of the world. Why not start with the first Law given to the Jewish people? So too, one might ask the question by the start of Exodus. Why not start the book of Exodus off with Parshat Bo, when we read “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim  – this month is to you the head (first) of the months.”(Exodus 12:1) It is clear that  in the case of the entire book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, we need a context for the law. Or in the terms set out by Robert Cover, we cannot have the nomos removed from the narrative.

Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. Rituals are themselves an enactment of stories over time. In this way stories are the pillars of our society. That being true, it is troubling to realize how difficult it is for us all regardless of religious affiliation to realize this truism. If we forget our law or our lore we will not endure in making our collective contribution to the world.

Quick Notice

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, Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh was significant. Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaronwas also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires. Does the Jewish people defy this rule?

A Scent of Self

In this 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 last 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.

We are left with the question of why they perceived that the Egyptians saw them smelling? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. This synthesis of sight and smell at the nadir of their existence is the foundation for a parallel synesthesia at the apex of their existence at the revelation of the Torah. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed to them.

When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? Take a lesson from this week’s Torah portion; at the heart of this feeling of shame might be the key to a deeper revelation of self-knowledge. While in many ways perception is reality, the lesson of the Exodus from Egypt is that we can escape that. Somewhere in between our perception of ourselves and other people’s perceptions of us we will discover a better sense of ourselves.  If a group of smelly slaves can enter into relationship with God, we all have the ability realize inner worth and our scruptious selves.

– Check out two fascinating TED lectures that deal with the science behind and the concept of  synesthesia:

1) The science of synesthesia- Fast forward to end

2) Kika and Booba Test used again but in the context of metaphors and communication.


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