Posts Tagged 'VaEra'

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)

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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.


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