You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Va’eira.
From My Jewish Learning
Thanks When Thanks Are Due
A Midrash on the 10 plagues reminds us to recognize any good that has been done for us.
BY RABBI ISMAR SCHORSCH
A careful reading of the Torah narrative would quickly persuade us that not all of the 10 plagues are unleashed by Moses. The Midrash , in fact, attributes only three to Moses–those of hail, locusts, and darkness.The first three plagues–those of blood, frogs, and vermin–are attributed to Aaron, while still three others–insects, pestilence, and the death of the first born–come directly from God. Finally, one plague–that of boils–is triggered by all three of them jointly.
The Midrash does not provide an overall explanation for the pattern. From a modern perspective, I would observe that the multiple authorship of the plagues may be intended to understate the magical prowess of Moses. In its portrait of the man, the Torah consistently brings out his failings. Though larger than life, Moses never looms before us as superhuman. Moreover, at the end, the Torah conceals his place of burial. Moses is to be venerated, not worshipped. His persona ought not to become a cultic focal point.
What interests me, however, is the highly suggestive partial explanation offered by the Midrash for Aaron’s causing the first three plagues.The homily turns on the important rabbinic principle of acknowledging a favor (hakarat ha-tov). As the beneficiary of an act of kindness, we are bound in a lifelong relationship with its progenitor, whether animate or inanimate. There is too little good in the world for us to indulge in ingratitude. Our life should become a text for others.
In this spirit, the Midrash has God address Moses.”‘The waters that preserved you when you were thrown into them and the dust which protected you on the day that you killed the Egyptian [that is, covered his body] should not be smitten by you.’ That is why they were smitten by Aaron” [Torah Shlemah, vol. 10, p. 44-45]. Put differently, it would have been an act of gross ingratitude for Moses to smite elements of nature to which he owed his very life. And so the devastation (including that of the frogs which came from the Nile) was wrought by Aaron.
The same ethical principle prompted the Midrash to account for another episode in Moses’s life. Prior to his death, he is instructed by God to eradicate the Midianites, who had needlessly joined Balak, King of Moab, to induce the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 22:2-8). Again an acute reading gives rise to ethical insight. Though the command is directed to Moses (31:2), he sends others to execute it (31:6). According to the Midrash, his personal indebtedness to the land of Midian, which gave him refuge, a family, and employment when he fled Egypt, forced him to recuse himself from leading the assault.
Throwing Stones in Wells
A piquant and popular proverb closes the homily with a punch: “Never throw a stone into a well from which you have drunk” (Bemidbar Rabba 22:4). Let not the pain of a recent injustice obliterate the memory of an earlier gesture of compassion.
It is standard rabbinic fare to ground principles as well as practices in Scripture. Thus the Talmud finds proof for the admonition not to muddy the waters which once nourished you in the torahitic legislation to admit an Edomite or Egyptian into the people of Israel in the third generation. Unlike the Ammonites and Moabites, who refused to extend food and water to the Israelites in the wilderness and are therefore eternally excluded, the Edomites and Egyptians are eligible for admission: The former because they are kinsmen and the latter because they once took in our ancestors (Deuteronomy 23:8-9). In short, the principle of acknowledging a favor is embedded in the Torah itself (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 92b).
And such communal acknowledgment is the basis for a prayer for the government, which has been a fixture of synagogue services on Shabbat morning after the Torah reading for centuries. The Talmud draws an analogy between fish and humans. It is only the authority of the government which prevents humans from devouring each other like fish in the sea. Hence we are advised to pray for its welfare, for no matter how arbitrary or discriminatory a government might be, as long as it maintains a semblance of law and order it is preferable to mob rule (BT Avodah Zarah 4a).
As the Kingdom of Judah unraveled at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. and the Babylonians deported its leading citizens, this is precisely the farsighted counsel that the prophet Jeremiah issued: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper (Jeremiah 29:7).
But I wish to end closer to home. Each of us in our life’s journey is beholden to innumerable acts of kindness. Without them, we would notbe where we are or who we are; to conceal them serves only to aggrandize ourown accomplishments. I can think of no finer role model in this regard than Gershom Scholem, the renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism who died in 1980.
In his autobiography From Berlin to Jerusalem, which covers the first third of his life, Scholem recounts his introduction to the world of rabbinic Judaism. The context is his rebellion as an adolescent against the utterly diluted Judaism of his parents’ home by embracing Zionism. His Zionism, though, ran far deeper than strident protests of estrangement or romantic nature hikes on German mountaintops. It provided the impetus to study Hebrew and to immerse himself in the sacred sources of Judaism. From 1913 to1915, in addition to his Gymnasium classes, he spent fifteen hours a week studying Hebrew.
But it is to his first teacher of Talmud, Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Bleichrode, to whom Scholem pays touching tribute. In those days, Berlin was a wasteland for the study of Talmud, a subject restricted to rabbinical students in one of its two seminaries. Bleichrode, a gentle, modest and gifted teacher, taught Scholem and his few like minded friends free of charge, for no other reason than love of Torah. Though Orthodox, he neither judged nor countered their unobservant lifestyle or free-thinking spirit. The Torah itself would do that.
Scholem attributed an indebtedness to Bleichrode beyond words and credited him with the one authentically religious experience of his life. It occurred one Sunday morning in the spring of 1913, when Scholem learned with him his first page of Talmud and later that day, the Rashi on the first verses of the Torah. That initial meeting with the tradition beyond the Bible implanted in Scholem a profound and enduring fascination with Judaism.
Many years later Bleichrode, who made aliyah [immigrated to Israel] at age 65, quietly attended Scholem’s class on the Zohar at the Hebrew University. When his students marveled at Scholem’s uncharacteristic indulgence, he told them cryptically that “what is mine and yours actually belongs to him.” (Hebrew edition p. 51)
Would that we could all fulfill the commandment of acknowledging the good so self-effacingly!
Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Bradley Artson
The Breath of Life
Serpents And Snakes
The different miracles performed before the Israelites and before the Egyptians symbolize the different messages communicated to each group.
BY YOSSI ZIFFER
When God appoints Moses and Aaron to lead the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, the brothers are charged with a dual responsibility. On one hand, they must confront and negotiate with Pharaoh to secure the release of their people. On the other, Moses and Aaron must also convince the Jews to accept them as leaders and reliable bearers of God’s word.
Each of these processes began in Parashat Shemot (which we read last week), and continues in this week’s portion, Vaera. Rather than rely only on oration or logical persuasion to accomplish their goals, Moses and Aaron perform miracles as well. An interesting contrast between one of the miracles performed in last week’s portion and one in this week’s sheds light on the very different nature of the message being transmitted to the Jews from that being communicated to their Egyptian captors.
In Parashat Shemot, God appears to Moses and appoints him as the individual to lead the Jews out of slavery. In a lengthy dialogue, Moses protests that he is not suited for the task, while God maintains that Moses is destined for leadership. Among his many concerns, Moses expresses doubt as to whether the Jews will believe that God has appeared to him and appointed him to lead them out of Egypt. God responds by equipping Moses with several “signs” (miracles) to convince the Jews of his divine approval.
Different Images of Moses & The Snake
In one of these miracles, Moses is commanded to throw down his staff, and when he does so, it turns into a snake (nachash). God then tells Moses to grab the snake by the tail, and when he does so the snake reverts back into a staff. This miracle, along with two others, is used to convince the Jews that Moses is the legitimate messenger of God.
In Parashat Vaera, a similar miracle takes place. Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, bearing God’s command that the Jews be set free. Not surprisingly, their request meets with cynicism and rejection. However, to demonstrate that they have, in fact, been sent by God, Aaron is commanded to throw down his staff, which turns into a serpent (tanin).
Unimpressed by this display, Pharaoh calls on his magicians, who also turn their staffs into serpents. However, Aaron’s staff devours those of the Egyptians. (The medieval commentator Rashi notes that the verse says that the staff of Aaron devours the staffs of the Egyptians, rather than saying that the serpent of Aaron devoured the serpent of the Egyptians. According to Rashi, this is a “miracle within a miracle,” because somehow the devouring took place after the respective serpents turned back into staffs.)
Thus, we see that similar miracles are used to convince the Jews and the Egyptians. Yet, the miracles are not identical. For the Jews, Moses’ staff turns into a snake (nachash), while for the Egyptians, Aaron’s staff turns into a serpent (tanin). What does this difference signify?
For an answer, we might look to another place in the Torah where we find snakes and serpents. In Parshat Bereshit, at the very beginning of Genesis, there are two different accounts of creation. The first chapter of Genesis provides a “macro” view of creation.
Beginning from nothingness, the narrative follows the process of God creating light and darkness; the separating of the “upper waters” from the “lower waters;” forming the land, celestial bodies, and flora; and the creating of living creatures, culminating in man. Each step is initiated by God’s “intention,” and culminates with God’s “approval.”
The Account of The Fifth Day of Creation
In this account, on the fifth day of Creation, when God “decides” to create living creatures, we read:
And the Lord (Elo-him) created the great taninim (serpents), as well as every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly…and every winged bird… (Genesis 1:21).
This verse begins with the creation of the tanin, exactly the symbol that Aaron’s staff became in the court of Pharaoh.
In the second chapter of Genesis, we read of creation from a different perspective. In this version, only relatively little attention is given to the creation of the physical and animal worlds. The major focus, rather, is on the creation of man and woman, their placement in the Garden of Eden, God’s commandments to them, and their eventual downfall at the hand of the nachash.
While the first account of creation is from a cosmic perspective, the second account is very much from an anthropocentric perspective. And thus, while God is, of course, behind every step of each account of Creation, God is portrayed differently in each version. In Genesis I, God is portrayed as the Master of the Universe, the cosmic orchestrator. By way of contrast, in Genesis II, God is portrayed in a more immanent, intimate light, as the parent of Creation in general, and of man and woman in particular.
How does the appearance of the nachash and the tanin in Parshat Bereshit relate to the use of the nachash and tanin in our parsha ?
I believe that these symbols reflect the distinct messages that Moses and Aaron were communicating. For the Egyptians, who did not recognize God’s complete mastery and control over the world, Moses and Aaron utilize the imagery of Genesis I, where God’s cosmic rulership is demonstrated.
The Snake as Tanin
Moreover, because the Egyptian culture deified certain animals (see, for example, Rashi on Genesis 46:34), the symbol of the tanin, the first creature God created, effectively conveys God’s complete mastery over the world. Note that Aaron’s tanin, which might be called a “tanin of belief” devours the Egyptians’ “taninim of disbelief,” thus asserting the validity of the message that Moses and Aaron represent.
Yet while Moses and Aaron must “educate” the Egyptians about God’s existence and grandeur, they face a very different task with the Jewish people. The Jews, enslaved for more than 200 years, and strangers in a foreign land for even longer, have predictably been influenced by their surroundings and grown distant from God.
When Moses returns to Egypt to lead the Jewish people, he must do more than establish his own legitimacy. He must rekindle the people’s flame of belief and faith in God. Thus, one of the symbols that he presents to the people is that of the nachash, hearkening back to Genesis II and its portrayal of the intimate, parent-progeny relationship between God and man.
At first glance, however, it seems strange to resort to this symbol, because the nachash was blamed for causing the sin of Adam and Eve, and thus it created distance between man and God. Why, then, would Moses evoke this symbol?
Perhaps the answer is that, whereas the Torah does not detail how Aaron converted the tanin back into a staff, it explicitly states that God commanded Moses to grab the nachash by its tail, and then it would turn back into a staff (Exodus 4:4). Thus, Moses demonstrates mastery over the very creature that once brought distance between man and God. Moses’ message is that it is time for the Jews to re-enter into an intimate relationship with God.
Recognizing the Meaning of the Exodus
This analysis of the dual messages borne by Moses and Aaron help us more clearly understand not only the details of the miracles they performed, but also the very purpose behind the entire Exodus. The Jews were not freed from Egypt simply to restore their human rights. Rather, they were liberated with the purpose of fulfilling God’s word–to enter into a close relationship, or covenant, with God.
Similarly, the punishments inflicted on Egypt were not due only as retribution for their maltreatment of the Jews. Rather, the process of the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea was to establish, beyond the shadow of a doubt, God’s dominion over the entire world.
Reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood and fosters Jewish renaissance.
How Aaron Helped Moses Overcome His Feelings of Inadequacy
Aaron bridged an existential gap that divided his brother from the Israelite slaves.
BY RACHEL FARBIARZ
Parashat Vaera continues the conversation between God and Moses following Moses’ first encounter with Pharaoh. God persists in his alternately tender and impatient wooing of the reluctant emissary, while Moses insists that he is unfit for the task. As before, Moses’ feelings of inadequacy center on his difficulty with speech, now captured, ironically, by his poetic lament: “I am uncircumcised of lips” (Exodus 6:12).
The Torah does not identify the nature or origins of Moses’ difficulty. Rashi postulates that Moses had an actual speech impediment–perhaps a stutter or a severe lisp. A midrash explains that Moses’ impeded speech dated from infancy when the angel Gabriel had guided him to place a hot coal in his mouth. Perhaps Moses was deeply shy, a shepherd who preferred the company of animals over people with their insatiable demand for words.
Lending further obscurity, Moses’ impediment is wholly self-described. We learn of it only through his own protests at having been chosen as Israel’s liberator. Whereas the omniscient biblical narrator provides the descriptions of its other central characters, it is silent on Moses’ “heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued” (Exodus 4:10) condition. The absence of this narrative corroboration implies that Moses’ impediment loomed larger in his own mind than as a handicap perceptible to others.
Whatever the impediment’s nature, it is clear that each utterance exacted a painful toll on Moses. God therefore sends Aaron to be his brother’s mouthpiece, and Aaron remains at Moses’ side as the two heap threats and plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Indeed, it is Aaron who initiates the first three plagues, stretching his rod over the waters to bring forth blood and frogs and hitting the earth to summon lice.
While the brothers seem to have settled well into their complementary roles, a nagging difficulty remains. In last week’s parashah, God dismissed Moses’ protestations by saying: “Who gives man speech?…Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11) Why then, instead of forcing Moses to suffer through humiliation and anxiety, doesn’t God eliminate the impediment? Why offer Aaron as a crutch rather than solve the problem?
God’s solution of Aaron as translator contains the answer: Aaron’s role as mediator was critical to the success of Moses’ leadership. Aaron’s translation not only smoothed away his brother’s stutterings, but also bridged a vast existential difference that stood between Moses and the slaves whom he was charged with liberating.
Moses, raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, grew up in privilege. He had not been beaten for stumbling over his own exhaustion. His mind had not been numbed by the monotonous horror of slavery. Moses could certainly feel righteous rage for the bitterness of the Hebrews’ servitude, but their burdens had never been his. Their pain was not his desperation. He had simply never been a slave.
Aaron, by contrast, was not raised in Pharaoh’s palace: He was raised as a slave, among a family and community of slaves.
Moses’ reliance upon Aaron’s translation served as a constant reminder that to advocate effectively for his nation, Moses needed to reach beyond his own personal experience. Aaron could speak directly from the experience of oppression, and his role as translator helped Moses traverse the large divide between himself and the former slaves.
Each time Moses sought use of his brother’s lips, the great leader was compelled to confront the fact that while he could speak to God without barrier, advocating for Israel was a more complicated matter.
As American Jews we have been raised, like Moses, among privilege. While this gives us great power to advocate for those in need around the world, it also means that we have not personally shared their experiences. The partnership between Moses and Aaron helps us understand that in a situation of such disparity we cannot work alone, but must work together with the communities whom we seek to help.
We revere Moses as rabeinu, our greatest teacher: Among his enduring lessons are the insights of his obdurate tongue. Just as Moses needed Aaron’s constant mediation to lead and liberate a nation whose hardships he had never shared, we must be aware, when we commit ourselves to global justice work, that the communities we serve have faced challenges and privations that we have not borne.
Such awareness is, of course, not meant to impose artificial barriers. Rather, it is meant to cultivate respect and humility as we approach our work, to require from us the open-mindedness to listen for local wisdom and the discipline to concede that we do not hold a monopoly on solutions. For AJWS this means that grassroots organizations are best positioned to tackle the injustices and challenges of their own communities. They are, in effect, our “translators”–adapting for their communities’ particular contours our common aspirations for a just world.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Who Really Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?
Was God responsible for the Egyptian leader’s intransigence?
BY RABBI DANYA RUTTENBERG
When people talk about great philosophical challenges in the Torah , they often cite a verse in Parshat Vaera. These chapters deal with Moses’ attempt to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves, Pharaoh’s refusal and the first seven plagues that rain down as part of this back and forth.
Towards the end of the portion, after the Egyptians suffer boils, the text says (Exodus 9:12), “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not hear them.” The plagues continue, but suddenly they seem much less fair. There are major challenges to the concept of free will here: Did Pharaoh choose to refuse Moses’ request to let the Israelites go, or did God make him do that? Would he have responded the same way had not God intervened? And how on Earth could God continue to punish Pharaoh, given that God Godself caused Pharaoh to refuse to free the Israelites from bondage?
A number of classical sources deal with this question, including the Rabbinic commentary Exodus Rabbah, which observes a critical detail: Exodus 9:12 is the first time that the Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but we see evidence of Pharaoh impacting his own heart five times earlier in this portion. Twice (Exodus 7:13 and Exodus 22) in response to Moses’ challenges and requests, the Torah tells us, his heart “hardened.” And three times after that (Exodus 8:11, Exodus 15 and Exodus 28), we’re told that Pharaoh “made his heart heavy.”
Five times Pharaoh turned away from Moses’ call and the suffering of the Israelites. Five times he made his own heart less and less supple and soft. As such, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish claims in Exodus Rabbah, a collection of Midrash compiled in the 10th or 11th century (scholars are unsure of the exact date), “Since God sent [the opportunity for repentance and doing the right thing] five times to him and he sent no notice, God then said, ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own…. So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God.’”
In other words, Pharaoh sealed his own fate, for himself and his relationship with God.
As the 18th-century Italian philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote, “Our external actions have an effect on our inner feelings. We have more control over our actions than our emotions, and if we utilize what is in our power, we will eventually acquire what is not as much in our power.”
This is true in both directions. When we make the choice to turn away from suffering, when we engage in the action of walking away from others’ pain, we impact our inner life — our own heart is hardened, we become estranged from the divine and from our own holiest self. True, it’s scary to look that pain in the eyes, and then to grapple with the feelings of responsibility it might engender in us. But there’s a cost to that turning away.
However, as Luzzatto implies, the situation is never permanent. Even when you’ve turned away from others and toward your own self-interest to the point that you can no longer hear the still small voice whispering in your direction. Even then, the gates to the divine — and to ourselves — are always open. As the Talmud (Brachot 32b) teaches in the name of Rabbi Elezar, “From the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been closed… But though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of weeping are not closed.”
We can do the work of goodness in the world. It will change us. And when we’re finally ready to let our heart break open, the gates will be there, ready to receive us.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE FINGER – Parshat Va’eira
Behold – the plagues! Rivers of blood! Swarms of locusts! Darkness upon the land! Terrifying devastation, of supernatural proportions, all wrought by God’s mighty…
Wait, shouldn’t that be God’s mighty “hand”? We are familiar with the “hand of God,” or the “arm of God.” That language is all over the Exodus story. God first appears to Moses in last week’s parsha with the announcement that:
I will stretch out My hand and afflict Egypt… (Exod. 3:20)
וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת-יָדִי, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-מִצְרַיִם…
Then, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, God says:
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Exod. 6:6)
וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה…
These images come to form a classic metaphor in the Jewish story, representing the power of God’s deliverance of the Children of Israel from the house of bondage. The Passover Seder, for example, opens every year with Four Questions and begins its answer with the following sentence:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.
So, hands of God, arms of God – these we know about. But in the third plague – Lice – Pharaoh’s magicians surprise us by declaring:
This is the finger of God! (Exod. 8:15)
אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹקים הִוא
What do they mean by this? And after the hand/arm imagery been firmly established, why do they suddenly switch to the ‘finger’?
Many of the commentators just ignore the ‘finger’ and just focus on the ‘God’ part, taking the magicians to mean simply, “This is actually the work of God – not just magic – so we can’t replicate it!”
This sentiment might be especially relevant at this moment in the narrative because one of the overlooked parts of the plague story is that for the first two plagues – Blood and Frogs – as soon as Moses and Aaron unleash the plague, Pharaoh’s magicians come around and do the same with their spells. Now that is strange, because it suggests that this big, impressive wonder from God is actually just a kind of parlor trick that any magician can perform. When Pharaoh sees his own magicians replicating the plagues, he thinks Moses and Aaron must be run-of-the-mill illusionists, not agents of God – so he doesn’t have to worry about them. But now, with this plague, the magicians are stumped. And that’s why they say, “Hey – this is actually from God!!”
So that interpretation makes sense. But it still doesn’t tell us: Why do they describe it as God’s “finger”?
One major commentator who does have an answer to that question is Nachmanides, who says:
They said it to minimize the situation. ‘The finger of God,’ and not ‘The hand of God,’ as if to say, this plague from God is just a small thing.
ולהמעיט הענין אמרו אצבע אלקים ולא אמרו “יד אלקים”, כלומר מכה קטנה מאתו
No big deal, Pharaoh! Don’t worry about it! It’s not like the hand of God is afflicting us! Just a little itty-bitty finger.
Well, at least this is an answer. But I’m not sure it’s a great one. Because it implies that the lice weren’t really bothering them that much. But the text says that “all the dust of the earth turned to lice” and that “they were all over the people and the animals.” That sounds pretty unpleasant to me.
I remember when I was a kid and lice hit my elementary school. Kids were scratching their heads, and parents were freaking out. Now what if everyone you knew, and all their cats and dogs, were covered with lice? Swarming everywhere, crawling all over everything, every inch of your body itching like crazy. That’s not just gross – that’s maddening.
On top of that, these magicians would have had to admit to their boss that their own skills were useless, and they must have been scared of his anger. So I don’t think Pharaoh’s magicians were taking this in stride. I think they were greatly alarmed.
A better explanation for ‘the finger,’ I think, comes by asking a different question: Why couldn’t Pharaoh’s magicians replicate this plague? Lice are so tiny! If they could turn water into blood, and conjure up frogs, surely they could come up with a couple of little bugs?
Rashi gives us a strange answer, taken from the Talmud:
They could not… because dark forces have no power over a creature that is smaller than a barleycorn.
ולא יכלו. שֶׁאֵין הַשֵּׁד שׁוֹלֵט עַל בִּרְיָּה פְּחוּתָה מִכִּשְׂעוֹרָה (סנהדרין ס“ז):
Well, that doesn’t make sense. Assuming magicians can tap into some kind of black magic, why would it work on big things but not on small things? It should be the opposite! The smaller something is, the easier it should be to manipulate.
The Maharal of Prague, in his brilliant supercommentary on Rashi, ׳Gur Aryeh,׳ helps us make sense of this strange law of metaphysics:
Dark forces have no power over a creature that is smaller than a barleycorn… There is a wondrous reason for this. For something which is the size of a barleycorn at least has some substance which the dark forces can latch onto. But something which is smaller than a barleycorn is nullified into the whole of the world…That is why it is called “barley” (שעורה – seora), from the same language for “measurement” (שעור –sheor) – for this size is measurable, but less than this becomes unmeasurable. And since it has no measurement, it just merges into the world.
שאין השד שולט על בריה פחות משעורה… וטעם מופלא הוא, כי דבר שהוא כשעורה יש בו ממש בעצמו והשד שולט עליו, אבל דבר שהוא יותר קטן מכשעורה הוא בטל אצל כלל העולם, ואין השד שולט על כלל העולם… ומפני זה נקרא ”שעורה“ מלשון שעור, שדבר זה נקרא שעור, ופחות מזה לא נקרא שעור, ומכיון דלא נקרא שעור – בטל הוא אצל כלל העולם.
The Maharal is playing on the similarity between the Hebrew words for ‘barley’ and ‘measurement,’ in order to suggest that the reason the magicians had no ability to recreate lice is that these creatures were too small for humans to take accurate measurement of, and therefore beyond the reach of human powers. “Smaller than a barleycorn” is just an ancient way of saying “quantum.”
The reference to ‘the finger,’ then, indicates that this plague demonstrated intricate, precise creation – the work of dexterous fingers, rather than the big stroke of an arm or a hand. Because lice are so small, this plague seemed to take place on a microscopic, rather than a grand, scale. In this, the first plague that the Egyptian magicians cannot replicate, we see that God’s power is demonstrated not only at the cosmic level, but also at the atomic.
And this is important, because the Children of Israel will one day need to know to look for God in the small things. The lesson of the plagues is as much for them, after all, as it is for the Egyptians. “I displayed my signs among them,” God says, “in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (10:2) But there will not always be fire streaming down from the heavens and seas splitting in two. God will not always come down into the world so thunderously and intervene, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Elijah famously discovered God not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a “still, small voice.” (Kings 1:19:12) So, too, our encounters with Divinity are not only at the towering mountains and the grand canyons, but in the dew on a flower-petal, or the crystalized precision of a snowflake. Our wonder at the universe is not only at galaxies seen through telescopes, but at cells seen through microscopes. And our moments of joy and connection are not only the great ceremonies and triumphs of our lives, but those little moments of awareness – the smell of bread baking, lamplight shining through the trees, the flash of a smile from our beloved. In all these things, the finger of God is working – quietly, nimbly, perfectly.
The Children of Israel will need this awareness once the Exodus is over, the thunder has died down, and real life begins. It is fitting, then, when we recall the one other place in the Torah where the finger of God is mentioned. It is when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, engraved with the Ten Commandments. There we read:
When God finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Testament, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. (Exod. 31:18)
וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי, שְׁנֵי, לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת–לֻחֹת אֶבֶן, כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹקים.
The Torah is also written with the finger of God. For it will be with you in all the little moments of your life. It will whisper to you in a still, small, voice. You will find in it great wonders and miracles, but you will also find in it tiny details, silent spaces, and hidden treasures.
God will lead you out of the house of bondage, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. But this book will guide you through your life, pointing the way with a finger, into the next perfect moment.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
God is Breaking Through (Weekly Torah)
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai [Almighty God], but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH [Ineffable Being] ( Exodus 6:3)
Clearly we cannot take this verse literally. God certainly does announce the name YHWH to Moses’ ancestors, saying directly to Abraham, “I am YHWH” (Genesis 15:7).
Our medieval commentators believe the words present a theological guideline. We cannot know the Godhead directly, they teach, but only by means of particular manifestations of the divine — particular to time, place, person and situation. Abraham and Sarah saw Almighty God; Moses, half a millennium and a whole cultural milieu away, saw Ineffable Being.
But the specific God-experiences here seem wrongly attributed, backwards in fact. Abraham and Sarah, we are told in Genesis, experienced the subtle divine presence in everything. Daily, they walked and talked with God. But the demoralized, cynical generation of Moses, Miriam and Aaron was awed only by miraculous displays of divine power. Shouldn’t Torah say Abraham and Sarah experienced Ineffable God and Moses experienced God Almighty?
Yes — if Torah meant to describe its heroes’ natural spirituality. Instead, it speaks of what was “made known” to them. It hints at what we call “numinous experience” — divine energy breaking through a veil of familiarity. Yes, each character had a natural spirituality, a habitual sense of being in the world. And each character’s complacency was disrupted. Abraham and Sarah came to believe in impossible military victories, miraculous pregnancies, and synchronistic meetings. Moses’ generation found a steadier faith in everyday moral and ritual practice.
Numinous breakthroughs introduce new possibilities, re-categorizing familiar spirituality as only a starting point. So here is an urgent call for your week: Stay Alert. What will break through into your spirituality? Interfaith work? Social justice? Political activism? Even if you, like Moses, are reluctant…Stay alert!
Catching Our Breath
By Rabbi Hannah Dresner
This Shabbat we celebrate the New Moon of Shevat, the beginning of the Hebrew month in which the world begins to turn from the darkness of winter to the light of spring. We now stand on a threshold, emerging from the darkest day of the darkest month, into a sliver of new light — by which we might contemplate new possibility.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era (meaning “I Will Show You”), God opens the divine aperture, shining a filament of light upon darkest Egypt. But the Children of Israel are too weak to respond. The Torah says they are kotzer ruach, diminished in spirit, or, more literally, short of breath. Distressed as they are, they cannot accept consolation.
Indeed, all the characters we encounter in Va’era seem stunned, unable to respond to God’s articulations of redemption, whether because of self-doubt, sheer exhaustion, or owing to fear of change.
The narrative stalls when God announces His grand plan: Hotzeiti, hitzalti, gaalti, v’lakachti – v’haivaiti! I will take you out! I will save you! I will redeem you! I will draw you to me! I will bring you home! Well, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed? It’s all too presumptuous for Moshe to feel comfortable proclaiming, too preposterous to be believed by the People, and far too threatening to affect any degree of empathy in Pharaoh.
Moving out of their darkness will mean traversing entry into the light of otherness, into the light of unfamiliar ideas. It will require opening to vulnerability, facing challenge, and submitting to the pangs of growth. In Va’era, no one’s ready to take such a step, least of all The Children of Israel.
So, God, in God’s wisdom, pulls back from His generalized pronouncements of emancipation and engages in the Plagues, a series of more visceral manifestations through which Israel can come to know Him, gauge his power and commitment, get used to Him, and somewhere, internally, begin to imagine freedom… Through this lens, the Ten Plagues, are an expression of God’s patience with Israel as her undifferentiated pain and longing develops into the courage to act.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Reb Mimi Feigelson
Heaven and Hell in Moshe’s Life
Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2 –9:35
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 23
Do we have to cross-over to inherit “Heaven” or “Hell”? Is it possible to experience either of them while still in one’s lifetime? How did Moshe navigate his continuous movement between the realms of reality between which he continuously vacillated? How can you be a leader of people when you are also defined as “Ish Elokim” – a man of God, a spouse to God?
I had two immediate reactions when I heard a description of the World-to-Come as a movie theatre. My teacher at the time said: “The World-to-Come is a movie theatre. In one eye you see each and every moment as you lived it, and with the other eye you see each and every moment as you were meant to live it. When you see the same movie in both eyes you are experiencing Heaven, and when you see two different movies simultaneously you are experiencing Hell.”
My first reaction was: “Stop watching ‘The Sound of Music’ immediately! You’ve seen it over 30 times and when you get “There” you’ll see it over 30 times again. You don’t need to see it anymore on this side of your life!” My second reaction was a bit more painful: “One doesn’t have to cross-over to inherit Heaven or Hell, this can happen in one’s lifetime as well!”
I believe that we have all been in situations where we have a sensation that we are in the right place in the right time doing the right thing. I have come to define these moments as “Heaven.” I have a deep sense of joy and quiet that take over in those divine experiences. The opposite is equally true – a situation where I have a deep sense of ‘the right person’ coupled with ‘the wrong time’; a piece of wisdom that came to me too late to manifest the change in my life so needed earlier in my linear narrative. Those are the moments that my breath becomes shallow and I experience a pinch in my heart. These are “Hell” moments.
In our tradition the “Hell” encounters are also called moments of “Hach’matzat Sha’ah” – an opportunity that was missed, ‘a moment that went sour’… If you see the word “Chametz” in the phrase you are correct. You see, matzah is an image of “The right thing at the right time”. Perhaps, not other times of the year or other situations, but when you are ‘on the run’ and can’t wait, then unleavened bread, within 18 minutes from when the water touched the flour, is the answer! Chametz, on the other hand, is 18 minutes and one second… the right ingredients, the right intension, but the timing is off! “Hell” crumbling what looks like a fitting piece of matzah but isn’t at all because of being one second too late! How many of us have found ourselves in front of a locked access door to a plane… the plane is standing there and we can’t get on, as the door was locked only a minute before.
When reading this Shabbat’s parshah/portion I find myself using this lens as I specifically look at Moshe and the outcome of his continuous encounters with Par’oh. Wondering if what I am seeing is not an ongoing enactment of moments of “Hell” in Moshe’s life.
In last week’s Torah portion Moshe tries to relinquish the mission he is sent on, owning his speech impediment. He owns the weightiness of his speech, being K’vad Peh (lit. ‘heavy mouth’). It is as if he can foresee that the weight of his lips will bring out the weight of Par’oh’s heart – K’vad Lev (lit. ‘heavy heart’). That their “neuron mirroring” would bring out the human challenge that they each carried, instead of their Divine attributes. Seven times in our Torah portion Par’oh’s heart is strengthened / hardened / locked closed /weighty. The brokenness of both nations clashing in the face of what could have been the ultimate redemption.
Have you ever taken a moment to imagine a Torah in which the narrative we celebrate every year would be one in which Moshe comes to Par’oh asking to send out the Children of Israel, and Par’oh’s response is: “Of course! Your work in Egypt of over! It is time to fulfill God’s promise to redeem you!”??? Can you imagine what our Pesach Haggadah would say if instead of Nachshon leaping into the Red Sea the walls of the ocean would rise in honor of Moshe and Par’oh as they stand side by side on the cusp of the sea shore?
Can you imagine an “Egypt narrative” which didn’t play out Moshe’s “Hell” – God promising to be by his side and assist him as he stands in front of Par’oh, and he, Moshe not being able to rise to the magnitude of God’s promise? Can you imagine a Torah portion in which we read of Moshe’s “Heaven” – God promises him to be by his side, he lays his ultimate faith in God’s promise and as an “Ish Elokim” experiences Divine “neuron mirroring” with God, which in turns allows a Divine “neuron mirroring” between Moshe and Par’oh?
As we enter this Shabbat I pray that we can offer this gift of interaction with each other. That we can find a way to offer each other a reflection of the Divine that we carry in our midst and bring into the world. That we learn from our teachers in both their triumphs and shortcomings. I pray that we can generate in each other Divine “neuron mirroring” that in turn will evoke within the One-and-Only a desire to manifest in God’s own highest Grace and Lovingkindness.
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
Masphiah Ruchanit and
Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies
REPRINT OF Va’era 5769
Who Are You? What is Your Name?
Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
When looking at these two questions – ‘who are you’ and ‘what is your name?’ it seems clear that they are two different questions. One is a question regarding essence – ‘who are you?’ – and one a formal question – what does one call you, when addressing you?
It is fascinating to me that intuitively we walk in the footsteps of the opening verses of our Torah portion which seems to read the two as one interchangeable question.
More often then not, when we are asked, ‘who are you?’ we will answer with our name, rather than answering with our profession, marital status, religion, existential state, or any other possible answers to this question. We rarely will actually answer the question: ‘who are you?’
Similarly we fall into a common trap with the question, ‘what is your name?’ More often then not we’ll answer with the name most frequently used, but not necessarily the name that reflects relationship, intimacy or even the name that we feel most identified with. Is our name the name we were given at birth / called up to the Torah with? The name our friends use? Our colleagues? Our family? Official documents?
How has our essence been lost in the space between these two questions?
It appears that our Torah portion offers us an understanding that the first step out of slavery is actually being able to answer the question/s: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What is your name?’ in the simplicity with which they are posed.
Our parasha begins with the following two verses:
And Elohim spoke to Moshe, and said to him, I am YHVH (the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable or unspeakable name of God). And I appeared to Avraham and to Yitzckak and to Ya’akov, by the name of El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH, I was not known to them. (Shmot / Exodus 6, 2-3)
Please read these p’sukim again and ask yourself, why is God so involved with His name? What does it matter what name He uses when speaking to our patriarchs? What is the difference between Elohim, YHVH and El Shaddai? Is there a difference between God ‘speaking to Moshe’ and then His ‘saying to him’?
I will address some of these questions and leave the others for you as ‘homework’ or ‘unfinished business’ that will avail us to continue to learn together in the future.
Our Chassidic Masters will touch upon these questions in different locations but in similar ways.
The Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement, 1700-1760), and R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) relate to these questions when God reveals Himself to Ya’akov in his famous dream on Har Hamoriah: “I am YHVH, the God of your father Avraham and the God of Yitzchak…” (Breishit/Genesis 28, 13).
The Ba’al Shem Tov will use this verse to ask why is it that in the Amidah (the Silent Prayer) we repeat God’s name between each one of the patriarachs (his siddur did not have the matriarchs in it, though the question holds equally when adding them). We say, “the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Ya’akov”. We don’t say, ‘the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov’.
Reb Levi Yitzchak will ask why the title ‘father’ is attributed to Avraham and not to Yitzchak, especially when taking into account that Yitzchak was Ya’akov’s father and Avraham was his grandfather…
They both will lead us down a similar path asking of us to seek the uniqueness of our journey and encounter of God. The Ba’al Shem Tov will say that the God of Avraham is different then the God of Yitzchak or that of Ya’akov. He will teach us that God reveals Himself differently to each one of us and we cannot rely on other modes of revelation to experience our personal encounter with God.
Reb Levi Yitzchak will teach us that Avraham was permitted to leave the Land of Israel but this was not the case regarding Yitzchak. Therefore, Reb Levi Yitzchak reads God’s words as God telling Ya’akov, ‘when you are outside the Land of Israel look for the God of Avraham – he is your father outside of Israel – for the God of Yitzchak dwells in Israel, not outside of it, and if you look for the God of Yitzchak while you are in Charan, you will not find Him!’
Let us return to our Torah potion. God tells us of His different names, He tells us with which name He reveals Himself to whom. The Ohr Ha’Meir in his commentary on Shir HaShirim (R’ Zev Wolf of Zhitomer, d. 1798) will teach us that the Master of the World reveals Himself, similarly, to each and every one of us with a different name. He teaches us that our life mission is to uncover this name and experience the Divine within the prism of it. Sometimes it may seem as if God doesn’t manifest in our life, but, he will say, it is only that we are looking for Him under the wrong name… It is likened at times, to not being tuned in properly to a radio station and therefore hearing ‘static’ and not the broadcast that is actually being broadcasted. Or, looking for someone listed by their maiden name, years after they have married and taken on a new name. They were in the phone book all the time, just not under the name you were looking for them with…
I remember sitting in the health service clinic at Hebrew University many years ago. Students who walked in long after me walked out long before me. Finally I turned to the nurse calling out the names to find out why this is happening. The reason became clear in one swift moment – the name on my file is my official name, ‘Miriam’. I had been sitting there waiting for ‘Mimi’ to be called into the doctor, so never once did I register the nurse calling, “Miriam Feigelson” as regarding me, even though she returned to my name again and again in that hour that I sat there! The Zohar teaches us that we are all invited into Heaven at the end of our physical lives. The spiritual work of our lives is to be able to identify and grow in the name we are called in with.
In the opening to our Torah portion, God is telling Moshe that the first step out of Egypt, out of emotional and spiritual slavery, is to uncover the name with which God is revealing Himself to us. Our opening to freedom is to see the face of God which is unique to our journey and mission in the world. The ability to do this lies, in my eyes, in the ability to be able to answer truly what is being asked of us when someone poses either one of our opening questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What is your name?’
Being able to answer these questions for ourselves – maybe even differently at different times, and to different people – will enable us to ask this of God too. Master of the World, ‘Who are You?’ and ‘What is Your name?’
May this Shabbat offer us the time, quiet and space to begin to answer these questions for ourselves.
From Rabbi David Ingber
The Secret Name of G-d: Human
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The question is ancient. If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then it was God who made Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go, not Pharaoh himself. How can this be just? How could it be right to punish Pharaoh and his people for a decision – a series of decisions – that were not made freely by Pharaoh himself? Punishment presupposes guilt. Guilt presupposes responsibility. Responsibility presupposes freedom. We do not blame weights for falling or the sun for shining. Natural forces are not choices made by reflecting on alternatives. Homo sapiens alone is free. Take away that freedom and you take away our humanity. How then can it say, as it does in our parsha (Ex. 7: 3) that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
All the commentators are exercised by this question. Maimonides and others note a striking feature of the narrative. For the first five plagues we read that Pharaoh himself hardened his heart. Only later, during the last five plagues, do we read about God doing so. The last five plagues were therefore a punishment for the first five refusals, freely made by Pharaoh himself.
A second approach, in precisely the opposite direction, is that during the last five plagues God intervened not to harden but to strengthen Pharaoh’s heart. He acted to ensure that Pharaoh kept his freedom and did not lose it. Such was the impact of the plagues that in the normal course of events a national leader would have no choice but to give in to a superior force. As Pharaoh’s own advisers said before the eighth plague, “Do you not yet realise that Egypt is destroyed.” To give in at that point would have been action under duress, not a genuine change of heart. Such is the approach of Yosef Albo and Ovadiah Sforno.
A third approach calls into question the very meaning of the phrase, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” In a profound sense God, author of history, is behind every event, every act, every gust of wind that blows, every drop of rain that falls. Normally however we do not attribute human action to God. We are what we are because that is how we have chosen to be, even if this was written long before in the divine script for humankind. What do we attribute to an act of God? Something that is unusual, falling so far outside the norms of human behaviour that we find it hard to explain in any other way than to say, surely this happened for a purpose.
God himself says about Pharaoh’s obstinacy, that it allowed him to demonstrate to all humanity that even the greatest empire is powerless against the hand of Heaven. Pharaoh acted freely, but his last refusals were so strange that it was obvious to everyone that God had anticipated this. It was predictable, part of the script. God had disclosed this to Abraham centuries earlier when he told him in a fearful vision that his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs (Gen. 15: 13-14).
These are all interesting and plausible interpretations. It seems to me, though, that the Torah is telling a deeper story and one that never loses its relevance. Philosophers and scientists have tended to think in terms of abstractions and universals. Some have concluded that we have freewill, others that we don’t. There is no conceptual space in between.
In life, however, that is not the way freedom works at all. Consider addiction. The first few times you smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol or take drugs, you do so freely. You know the risks but you ignore them. As time goes on, your dependency increases until the craving is so intense that you are almost powerless to resist it. At that point you may have to go into rehabilitation. You no longer, on your own, have the ability to stop. As the Talmud says, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
Addiction is a physical phenomenon. But there are moral equivalents. For example, suppose on one significant occasion, you tell a lie. People now believe something about you that is not true. As they question you about it, or it comes up in conversation, you find yourself having to tell more lies to support the first. “Oh what a tangled web we weave,” said Sir Walter Scott, “when first we practise to deceive.”
That is as far as individuals are concerned. When it comes to organisations, the risk is even greater. Let us say that a senior member of staff has made a costly mistake that, if exposed, threatens the entire future of the company. He will make an attempt to cover it up. To do so he must enlist the help of others, who become his co-conspirators. As the circle of deception widens, it becomes part of the corporate culture, making it ever more difficult for honest people within the organisation to resist or protest. It then needs the rare courage of a whistle-blower to expose and halt the deception. There have been many such stories in recent years.
Within nations, especially non-democratic ones, the risk is higher still. In commercial enterprises, losses can be quantified. Someone somewhere knows how much has been lost, how many debts have been concealed and where. In politics, there may be no such objective test. It is easy to claim that a policy is working and explain away apparent counter-indicators. A narrative emerges and becomes the received wisdom. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, is the classic parable of this phenomenon. A child sees the truth and in innocence blurts it out, breaking the conspiracy of silence on the part of the king’s counsellors.
We lose our freedom gradually, often without noticing it. That is what the Torah has been implying almost from the beginning. The classic statement of freewill appears in the story of Cain and Abel. Seeing that Cain is angry that his offering has not found favour, He says to him: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4: 7). The maintenance of freewill, especially in a state of high emotion like anger, needs willpower. As we have noted before in these studies there can be what Daniel Goleman calls an ‘amygdala hijack’ in which instinctive reaction takes the place of reflective decision and we do things that are harmful to us as well as to others. That is the emotional threat to freedom.
Then there is a social threat. After the Holocaust, a number of path-breaking experiments were undertaken to judge the power of conformism and obedience to authority. Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which eight people were gathered in a room and were shown a line, then asked which of three others was the same length. Unknown to the eighth, the seven others were associates of the experimenter and were following his instructions. On a number of occasions the seven gave an answer that was clearly false, yet in 75 per cent of cases the eighth was willing to give an answer, in conformity with the group, he knew to be false.
Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed that ordinary individuals were willing to inflict what appeared to be devastatingly painful electric shocks on someone in an adjacent room when instructed to do so by an authority figure, the experimenter. The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo, divided participants into the roles of prisoners and guards. Within days the ‘guards’ were acting cruelly and in some cases abusively toward the prisoners and the experiment, planned to last a fortnight, had to be called off after six days.
The power of conformism, as these experiments showed, is immense. That I believe is why Abraham was told to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house. These are the three factors – culture, community and early childhood – that circumscribe our freedom. Jews through the ages have been in but not of society. To be a Jew means keeping a calibrated distance from the age and its idols. Freedom needs time to make reflective decisions and distance so as not to be lulled into conformity.
Most tragically there is the moral threat. We sometimes forget, or don’t even know, that the conditions of slavery the Israelites experienced in Egypt were often enough felt historically by Egyptians themselves. The great pyramid of Giza, built more than a thousand years before the exodus, before even the birth of Abraham, reduced much of Egypt to a slave labour colony for twenty years. When life becomes cheap and people are seen as a means not an end, when the worst excesses are excused in the name of tradition and rulers have absolute power, then conscience is eroded and freedom lost because the culture has created insulated space in which the cry of the oppressed can no longer be heard.
That is what the Torah means when it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Enslaving others, Pharaoh himself became enslaved. He became a prisoner of the values he himself had espoused. Freedom in the deepest sense, the freedom to do the right and the good, is not a given. We acquire it, or lose it, gradually. In the end tyrants bring about their own destruction, whereas those with willpower, courage and the willingness to go against the consensus, acquire a monumental freedom. That is what Judaism is: an invitation to freedom by resisting the idols and siren calls of the age.
 Three different verbs are used in the narrative to indicate hardening of the heart: k-sh-h, ch-z-k and k-b-d. They have different nuances: the first means ‘harden,’ the second, ‘strengthen,’ and the third, ‘make heavy.’
 Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah 6: 3.
 Albo, Ikkarim, IV, 25.
 Commentary to Ex. 7: 3.
 Berakhot 5b.
 On Enron, see Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. New York: Portfolio, 2003.
 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam, 1995.
 Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
 Philip G. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007.
 It has been calculated, based on a ten hour working day, that one giant block of stone weighing over a ton, would have to be transported into place every two minutes of every day for twenty years.
From Rav Kook
Va’eira: Hamotzi – For all Times
(Note: I found the following idea difficult to translate, as it requires some knowledge of Hebrew grammar. Nonetheless, it provides a fascinating example of how a Talmudic disagreement over a single letter may reveal a profound philosophical discussion.)
It was definitely the low point in Moses’ mission to free the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh responded to the demand for freedom by adding more oppressive measures, and the Israelites began to wish that Moses had never come. Even Moses had his doubts. In response, God commanded Moses to relay the following message to the Israelites:
“You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out (ha-motzi) from under the Egyptian subjugation.” (Ex. 6:7)
Hamotzi — Past or Future?
The tense of the verb ‘ha-motzi’ here is unclear. The Israelites have not yet been freed. Why say, ‘who brings you out’? The future tense, ‘who will bring you out,’ would make more sense.
The word ‘ha-motzi’ brings to mind the blessing recited before eating bread. The Talmud (Berachot 38a) records a debate regarding this blessing. Rabbi Nehemiah felt the blessing should read, “Blessed are You … Who brought forth (motzi) bread from the earth.” But the other sages argued that the blessing should be “the One Who brings forth (ha-motzi) bread from the earth” — as in our verse.
What is the difference between motzi and ha-motzi?
The Talmud explains that this disagreement in based on how the verse in Exodus should be understood. According to Rabbi Nehemiah, the word ‘ha-motzi’ implies the future. The Jews were still slaves in Egypt, and God assured them that He would take them out in the future. The future tense, however, is not appropriate for the blessing over bread. We recite this blessing in recognition of the wheat that has already come out of the earth. The word ‘motzi’, on the other hand, refers to the past, and is therefore more suitable.
Rabbi Nehemiah’s colleagues felt that the word ha-motzi implies both the past and the future. They understood the verse as follows: the Israelites will be freed (in the future), after which they will recognize God as their Liberator (in the past). Since ha-motzi also includes past events, it is also appropriate for the blessing over bread.
What is the essence of this disagreement? Is it simply an argument over Hebrew grammar? What is the significance of the blessing over bread being in the past or the future?
There are two basic ways to attain love and awe of Heaven. The first approach is to contemplate God’s greatness by examining His works. Reflecting on His amazing creations allows one to appreciate God’s infinite wisdom and justice, and instills a tremendous longing to know God’s great Name (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:1).
The second approach maintains that intellectual reflection alone is insufficient. There must also be an emotional element. We need to awaken within ourselves love and awe for the Essence that creates these spectacular works.
Rabbi Nehemiah, by preferring the word motzi, concurred with the first approach. Before eating bread, we need to raise our intellectual awareness of the event that occurred: this bread was baked from wheat that God brought forth from the earth. The word motzi is a verb, referring to an event that has taken place. Rabbi Nehemiah stressed the importance of the past tense, since appreciation of God’s greatness is achieved by objectively analyzing God’s hand in history and past events.
The other scholars disagreed. The blessing should be ha-Motzi, “the One Who brings forth.” Ha-Motzi is not a verb but a descriptive phrase. We do not only observe the event itself, but we attempt to look beyond it to the Cause of the action. This is a supra-scientific, intuitive approach, relating to God according to His actions. The scholars held that the blessing over bread is not jut a way of contemplating the process of wheat growing out of the earth. We must concentrate on the Source of this process, and form a corresponding mental image of God.
Since this opinion stresses not the event but the Cause of the event, the framework of time becomes irrelevant. Ha-motzi thus implies both past and future. This changes our understanding of God’s promise to the Israelites, “You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out from under the Egyptian subjugation.” We now understand that the present tense is just as accurate as the past and the future. For all time, we will recognize God’s attribute of Ha-Motzi, the One who liberates us from slavery.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 110-112. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 176-177)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Can you hear me: Listening as Spiritual Practice
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
His Sufficiency: El Shaddai, The God of Enough
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | VaEra 2013
In some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the word YHWH is written
in the ancient Hebrew letters used during the first Temple period.
Other scrolls simply wrote three or four dots in place of God’s name.
As a child we loved to annoy our teachers by dropping God’s “explicit name” in class whenever possible. We’d throw out a “YHWH” here and a “Jehovah” there, or simply an “Adonai” when the more benign “HaShem” was called for. Looks of shock and anger would ensue, followed by a stern lecture which would derail the class for at least 20 minutes, much to the delight of students everywhere. In hindsight I justify my childish lashing out as a juvenile theological criticism. I was objecting to the cowardly distancing from the raw power and holiness of the very God they were trying to get us to believe in (really!).
Indeed, part of what is lost by the replacing God’s explicit name – YHWH – with its more benign stand-ins (HaShem, Lord or worse, God) is the fact that YHWH is an unpronounceable name. A straightforward pronouncing produces no more than a breath. Its fleeting meaning is best described by God in last week’s Torah portion: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” – I shall be what I shall be.
YHWH is fleeting and ineffable, but never inapproachable. God, Lord, “The Name” and all the rest of those theo-isms don’t get close to the mystery, awe and paradoxicality of YHWH.
This week’s Torah portion opens with a rare reflection on two of God’s names: YHWH and El Shaddai. El Shaddai is the name which God uses in Genesis with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whenever promises are involved. Now, with the move to Exodus, we seem to graduate from El Shaddai to YHWH:
And God spoke to Moses, saying:
I am ‘YHWH’
I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as ‘El Shaddai’,
but by My name YHWH
I was not known to them.
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה;
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְהוָה.
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב
וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
What does El Shaddai mean? Of the many answers, my favorite come from the Hebrew word “Dai” – די, enough. [Sha-Dai – שֶׁ that, דַּי is sufficient]. Rashi explains the name in those terms when “El Shaddai” first appears in the Torah, with God trying to convince a 99 year old man that he will indeed have a child:
And Abram was ninety-nine years old,
and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him,
“I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be whole.”
ויְהִי אַבְרָם בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים
וַיֵּרָא יי אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו:
אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.
I am El Shaddai: I am He Whose Godliness suffices for every creature.… and wherever this name appears in Scripture, it means “His sufficiency.”
רש”י: אני אל שדי: אני הוא שיש די באלהותי לכל בריה, …וכן כל מקום שהוא במקרא פירושו די יש לו, והכל לפי הענין:
El Shaddai – the God in whom there is enough for each and every being. “His Sufficiency”. To believe in El Shaddai is to believe that there is sufficient, that there is enough for all. It is less a faith, and more of a foundational experience, which colors the way one walks in the world: “I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be whole.”
It often seems that most of today’s religions worship a God who is “El Kana”, a jealous God, the God of mutual exclusivism. Indeed, “El Kana” seems to be the opposite of “El Shaddai”. The worshippers of El Kana are not wrong – there isn’t enough in this world, at least not enough material. All wars, as Aristotle and Maimonides contended, come from a battle over resources, which are by definition finite. The world is a zero sum game. This psychology seems to be behind all violence, ever since Cain hit his brother Abel.
The only way to move from El Kana to El Shaddai is to move from the material to the spiritual. Material is finite, but emotions are not. There should be sufficient love for everyone. This is what the embrace of El Shaddai seems to imply. Here is an inspiring vision for the religious people the world over: To carry El Shaddai’s name in this world, infusing all creatures with the sense that there is enough. Bringing “His Sufficiency”’s counter-intuitive presence to this material world.
To be fair, it should be “Her Sufficiency”. The probable etymology of the Hebrew word Shaddai of course has nothing to do with Dai, enough, but with Shadayim, Breasts. El Shaddai is the unabashed “God of Breasts” (if only I said that one in my elementary school classroom!). A throwback to the Canaanite feminine Gods, a pre-cursor to the Kabbalistic feminine aspects of God, El Shaddai is God as Mother. El Shaddai is the experience of the baby who suckles their mother’s breasts, and experiences a world of deep sufficiency. There is enough – enough milk, enough love, enough warmth and connection.
Perhaps these names of God can be placed in a developmental structure. The first experience, the Genesis, must be within an experience of El Shaddai. Similar to maternal attachment theory, we creatures need a strong foundation of sufficiency, of unending unbounded love. This is what Cain lacked, and what God tried to instill in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, once that is in place, it is time to grow up, to attain a more complex world – and a more complex Divinity – YHWH, I Shall Be what I Shall Be. Without that, no Exodus will ever take place.
And God spoke to Moses, saying:
I am ‘YHWH’
I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as ‘El Shaddai’,
but by My name YHWH
I was not known to them.
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה;
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְהוָה.
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב
וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
From the Maqam Project
What is a Name of God? (5774/2014)
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make known to them my name YHVH (Shemot/Exodus 6:3).
“And why not?” Rashi asks. He quotes a midrashic answer: “Because they didn’t ask.”
What is a “name of God”? Is it something that, when you invoke it, brings an instant sense of God’s presence? Does it have to be a word? Sitting perfectly still among a herd of animals who welcome your stillness: could that be a name of God?
How does one seek a “name of God”? Does one learn from others about a time-honoured value, such as “truth” or “love”? And then diligently practice it, even when challenged? And watch the equanimity and joy gradually grow?
When does one actually know a “name of God”? When one can invoke it and feel immediately called to an inner posture? When one welcomes, without fear, a surprise gift of mystical consciousness? When one models high ethical behaviour, teaching others simply by living?
Moshe seeks something, and thus knows something, that his ancestors did not. What is that something? Have you discovered facets of spirituality beyond what your teachers taught? Postures of inner peace, social activism, or mystical receptivity? If so, what do you plan to do with your discoveries? Tell us, as poet Mary Oliver says, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
From Rabbi Miriam Maron
The Ten Plagues: An Important Lesson in Healing
A Teaching from Rabbi Miriam Maron
© 2012 by Miriam Maron
During this period, the theme of the Torah being read and studied across the globe is the story of the Ten Plagues that befell the Egyptians prior to the Exodus of our people from Egypt about 3,300 years ago. Unbeknownst to many, the Ten Plagues are also referred to by the Torah as מחלהmachalah, or “illness”. This term is introduced a little later following the incident at מרהmarah, the lake of bitter waters. There, after crossing the Sea of Reeds and walking for three days without water, the people finally come upon a lake, but its waters are bitter and undrinkable. They complain to Moses and God responds by dropping a branch of a tree into the lake, transforming the bitterness to sweetness. The people are then promised that if they will listen to “the Voice of God” and do the right thing “in the eyes of God”, then, “all of the machalah (illness) that I placed upon Egypt will I not place upon you, for I am God your healer” (Exodus 15:26).
The infamous Ten Plagues are thus referred to as illness, to teach us that illness, like the Ten Plagues, represents Nature jolted out of balance. All of the plagues were completely within the Laws of Nature, albeit out of balance, exaggerated and amplified. All of them are traced to Water, as the first plague – water turning to blood – sparks the gradual progression of the ensuing nine. And it is at the first water hole the people arrive at in the desert that God is introduced as “healer” and the promise is made that the illness that befell Egypt (via Water) will not befall the Israelites if they will live in balance and respect all beings.
What happened to the Nile that turned her waters into blood? The same thing that would potentially happen at the bitter waters of marah. The algae would multiply and begin to bloom and secrete toxins, which in turn would kill the fish and other creatures of the waters, and everything would turn red, from the blood of dead sea animals and from the red-colored toxins of dying algae. This happens periodically when there is a radical change in climate, an imbalance in weather systems. This in turn would drive the frogs out of the sea onto the land in desperate search of food – millions of them since there were no fish around to eat their eggs. But being out of their watery environment for too long absent their usual means of survival, they would eventually die, bringing on swarms of flies and other vermin which in turn would first strike the flocks and herds of the Egyptians before turning on the Egyptians themselves, causing boils and other skin diseases as the epidemic swelled out of control. So much for the Waters of Below. At this point, the Waters of Above begin to come down, pelting the land with hail stones, consequent of the continued imbalance in the climate of the region during this period. Instability of climate evoked the plague of swarming locusts which devastated what was left of the crops. So many swarmed across the land that they covered the sky, creating a thick layer of darkness across the region, the ninth plague. As food was not being rationed carefully, the firstborn of Egypt – as was the custom – had first pick of what was left, meaning they ate of the top layers of the harvested grains, the very layer most affected by the plague of vermin that infested and infected everything and everyone during the earlier plagues, and of moldy supplies dampened by the hail storms – not to mention airborne mycotoxins released by the fungi that had by now developed on the surfaces of the top layers…and so the firstborn of Egypt died.
Nothing of the Ten Plagues, writes the 16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, are worthy of being described as “miraculous” – as in supernatural– other than the initial plague of the water turning to blood, which in turn led to all the other plagues within a sequence of natural occurrences, one linked to the other (Maharal in Sefer Gevurot Hashem, Ch. 56, folio 248). Because the water turning red was a result of an imbalance in the climate, an upset of the Laws of Nature, thus “supernatural” or “miraculous.” So, again, it all began with Water. And the first time our ancestors attempt to drink water in the desert following the Exodus, God refers to the Ten Plagues, and calls them machalah, illness.
Why Water? Because Water is the elemental force that unlocks what lies dormant. She is one of the three “Mothers of Creation” mentioned in the Kabbalah (Sefer Yetzirah 3:1).She is the force that unlocks the hidden possibilities of seed, and on a spiritual level represents the force that unlocks our own personal potentials during our life journey. When we thirsted after leaving Egypt, we found this force, we came upon a body of Water. And with urgency we turned to Mother Water to unlock our deepest potentials, to free us further from the bondage of Egypt. But she was bitter, undrinkable, inaccessible. There was one important ingredient missing in our encounter with her. A tree. A particular tree. The Tree of Life. Anyone can make duplicates of keys to liberate what is locked up deep within. That isn’t what freedom is about. Leaving Egypt wasn’t enough to liberate us. We needed to taste Life again. Life. Life as is, without definitions, without potentials or possibilities, without dreams or hopes, plans and destinies. Simply Life. That was the missing ingredient, and one that is often left out of attempts to heal.
And so Mother Water held herself back from us until God dropped a tree into her midst and sweetened her (Exodus 15:25). Not just any tree, the Kabbalah tells us, but the Tree of…Life (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 27a).
Metaphorically speaking, in our own time, the waters have already turned red. It is up to us to to call forth the Tree of Life to sweeten the waters before it continues to progress in a direction that is unhealthy. This is important for us all to realize and equally important for us all to remain as centered as possible and do our best to live in balance. Each of us as individuals can create rippling effects to help sweeten the lives of others and the life of our planet.
May we merit always in our healing journeys to sweeten our endeavors with focusing our consciousness on the miracle of Being, of the simplicity of Life, upon which we can build and grow toward what we call health.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Small alef; poetry Va-era
January 17, 2012
I heard you groaning
I returned to your story.
First your pain
then your freedom –
I will free you
I will deliver you
I will redeem you
I will take you to Me –
I will bring you into the Land –
But don’t be a schmoozer,
you know how I hate to be schmoozed.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Va’era
Rav DovBer Pinson
The Possibility of a Miracle
This week’s Torah reading opens with these verses;
“Elokim spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Hashem” I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov…but [with] My name Hashem, I did not become known to them…. Say to the children of Israel, ‘I am Hashem’ …I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be Elokim to you, and you will know that I am Hashem your Elokim” (6; 2-7)
There are two primary names for God. Elokim and Hashem.
Elokim is connected with nature.
Elokim is the manifestation of the Divine as the Creator of heaven and earth. The Hebrew word Ha’Teva /nature has the same numerical value as the Name Elokim.
Hashem (the Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey) represents the Infinite, the transcendent Divine that is beyond nature.
The four letters that comprise the name Hashem, when rearranged, can spell the Hebrew words for past, present and future, as Hashem is the aspect of Transcendence beyond time.
We sense Elokim in our lives when we feel guided. When the details of our lives come together and we sense purpose.
We are aware of Hashem in our lives when we feel as if something miraculous and extraordinary has occurred to us.
The third awareness is the unity between both these Names. This is the awareness that Elokim is Hashem.
We sense that Elokim is Hashem when we live with the recognition that every moment of life is truly a miracle, and nothing is expected or routine. To see that Elokim is Hashem is to live as a child, with a sense of wonder and amazement every moment.
At this place of deep awareness we recognize that there is no fundamental distinction between what we call “nature’ and what we call “miracles.” Both are mere expressions. Some events manifest as Elokim and some as Hashem, but there is only One Source to the various manifestations; “You will know that I am Hashem your Elokim.”
When we live our lives with this awareness we open ourselves to draw miracles down into our reality.
The Energy of the Week:
The Possibility of a Miracle
Last week’s energy brings about the first step towards personal liberation. The ‘non-acceptance’ of a situation that enslaves us. This week’s energy is the next step – believing in the possibility of an alternate reality.
This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the power to believe in the miraculous, and to access the awareness that nature is but another manifestation of the miraculous.
When we believe in the possibility of a new reality, even one that seems beyond the realm of natural possibility, our conviction itself stimulates this new reality.
To see that the natural is one and the same as the miracle, is to believe in the miraculous, is to create the miraculous
O holy Shabbes Inspirtation Vaera
Hoseini: D E flat F G
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure called a *maqam,
Arabic cognate to Hebrew maqom, Place.
The Philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037)
Identified 12 principal modes
From “place” (Arabic) Hebrew cognate Maqom.
Ethical and cosmological implications
Signs of zodiac
Times of day and night
Healings and treatments,
Each week a musical figure —
Our teacher said,
I am not a gifted speaker
I have stones in my mouth
my lips are covered
inarticulate. [4:10, 6:12]
How are we to learn from him?
Lead with gentleness
and to your detractors
speak with respect.
To the qualities of strength confidence and courage
on the left side
on the right side.
To the quality of stick-to-it-tiveness
on the right side
add gentleness and compassion
on the left side.
Draw a line down the middle of your body with your thumb
move your hand up and down that line
there is your heart line
there is your balance
between the left side and the right side
there is your strength.
Lead with patience and understanding
speak with respect
even to your detractors
especially to your detractors
and find your center.
Chassidic Insights for Parshah Vaeira
From the Lubavitcher Rebbe
26] Aaron and Moses…Moses and Aaron: In Kabbalah, Moses and Aaron personify the two Divine Names Havayah and Elokim, respectively.21 The Name Havayah signifies God’s transcendence, while the Name Elokim signifies His immanence hidden within creation. The allusion to these two Names in both orders refers to the union of these two Names, i.e., the awareness that God’s transcendence informs His immanence.
There are two ways we can experience this consciousness: as a gift from God, or as a result of our own efforts. The former experience is more transcendent, but the latter permeates our consciousness more thoroughly and permanently.22 Both ways are necessary and are an inherent part of the Giving of the Torah.
The phrase “Aaron and Moses”—the “natural” way we would expect the two brothers to be listed, in their order of birth—alludes to the way God confers this consciousness upon us, descending “naturally.” The phrase “Moses and Aaron”—referring to their consistency—alludes to the permanence of Divine consciousness that we attain on our own.23
In terms of our daily lives, Moses, the transmitter of the Torah, signifies the study of the Torah and performing its commandments, while Aaron signifies prayer, inasmuch as the daily prayers correspond to the sacrificial rites performed by the priests, Aaron’s descendants. Just as, in these verses, Moses sometimes precedes Aaron and Aaron sometimes precedes Moses, so must the study of the Torah sometimes precede prayer while sometimes prayer must precede the study of the Torah.
In some instances, we may need to study the Torah or fulfill some commandment first in order to be properly prepared to express our love for God through prayer. Other times, we might need first to connect ourselves to God through prayer in order to study the Torah and fulfill its commandments out of proper, selfless devotion to God.24
Also from Chabad.org
And G-d spoke to Moses, Say to Aaron, Take your rod, and stretch out your hand upon the waters of Egypt (7:19)
The first three plagues — blood, frogs and lice — were brought on by Aaron. For G-d said to Moses: the waters which protected you when you were cast into the River, and the soil which protected you when you buried the Egyptian — it is not fitting that they should be afflicted by your hand. Therefore, I shall afflict them through Aaron.
(Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer)
Wendy’s Comment: I love this teaching. I didn’t understand how the frogs fit the commentary until I realized that frogs spend part of their lives in the water as tadpoles and part of their lives on land as frogs.
Torah Reading for Week of January 10 – 16, 2010
“Taking Deep Breaths”
by Dr. Joel Gereboff
AJR,CA, Professor of Biblical Thought
There are several odd features about the sequence of notes sounded when we blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah. As we all know, it is traditional to blow three sets of notes consisting of the following combination of notes: 1. tekiah, shevaraim teruah, tekiah; 2. tekiah, shevarim, tekiah; 3. tekiah, teruah, tekiah. Two aspects of this order should jump off the page at us. First, in the opening set of notes, the one calling them out treats the shevarim-teruah as if it were a single unit and the shofar blower sounds the shevarim teruah before being asked to blow the next tekiah. But we see from the remainder of the sequence that indeed shevarim and teruah are actually different notes. Why then are they treated as a single unit in the first set of notes? Second, if as it appears the sequence of notes are meant to include all the permutations of the ways in which shevarim and teruah can be sounded between two tekiah notes, then there is a combination that is not present—we do not blow a sequence of tekiah, teruah shevarim, tekiah.
The reasons for these seeming oddities can be found in the discussion in the Talmud, (b. R.H. 33b-34a) of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:9. According to the Mishnah three sets of three types of notes comprise the required shofar blasts. And it is clear from the text that in fact there are only two actual types of notes, the tekiah and the teruah. Further, the mishnah reports that the length of the teruah is equivalent to three crying sounds (yevavot). The gemara in commenting on this mishnah observes that in fact while everyone agrees that the teruah is meant to sound like someone crying, it is not clear what sort of crying is intended. Is the crying like the sound of moaning and groaning, that is longer breaths such as one feels pain and cries out by saying, oy, oy oy, or is the crying of the teruah, more like a quick series of short whimpers, oy, oy oy, oy oy? It is because of this uncertainty that the practice developed to sound both the three longer notes now called shevarim as well as at least nine shorter, more staccato type of notes, each as it were drawing upon a shallow breath. Thus we now understand why we blow both shevarim and teruah. The gemara indeed reports that Rabbi Abahu, due to his doubts about the specific sound of the teruah, ended up adopting the practice we now follow that is noted above in which we sandwich between two tekiot first a combination of shevarim teruah and then follow with shevarim between the tekiot and end with a teruah between the tekiot. But the gemara then immediately asks, why did not R. Abahu not also include a sequence of tekiah, teruah shevarim, tekiah? It answers by observing, “Generally when calamity befalls a person and he is impelled to cry, he first moans (shevarim) and then he sobs and whimpers (teruah).” Uncontrolable crying, being overcome with grief and distress leads a person to breathe shallowly and to cry without self control.
This week’s parsha continues the story of the oppression of bnei yisrael by the Egyptians and reports on how they responded to Moses’ efforts at reassuring them that G-d was soon to redeem them. To put their reaction into perspective we need to return to last week’s parsha, Shemot. We are told there in Ex. 2:23-24, that the Israelites, in response to the hard labor imposed by Pharaoh. “Were groaning under the bondage and cried out, and G-d heard their moaning and remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”(JPS translation). And in turn when Moshe and Aaron perform miracles before the Israelites and tell them that the Lord had seen their plight, the Israelites were convinced and reassured. (Ex. 4:30-31). By contrast, this week’s parsha opens with the report that when Moshe, in reaction to Pharaoh’s having increased his oppression of the Israelites by no longer providing them with straw to make the bricks, tried to lift the spirits of bnei yisrael by reiterating G-d’s faithfulness to his covenant, “they (bnei yisrael) would not listen due to their cruel bondage and qotser ruach,” literally, their shortness of breath. Rashi comments on the term qotser ruach, by remarking, “If one is in anguish, his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths”. The parallel between the gemara’s explanation of the sequence of notes for blowing the shofar and reactions of bnei yisrael to their harsh treatment by the Egyptians is clear—people initially respond to bad situations, to tragedies with moans and groans and then begin to whimper and sob. And the latter so overcomes a person that they breathe very shallowly and without any self restraint. Such qotser ruach, shortness of breath, indicates as the JPS translation puts it, “their spirit (ruach) had been crushed.” The vital force, the breath of life, that G-d had breathed into Adam and thereby into all human beings, was now in quite short supply.
The Israelites eventually did recover their breaths, managed to leave Egypt and make their way to Mount Sinai. And there they experienced the revelation of the Holy One who began the Ten Commandments with the word anochi which starts with the letter alef, a letter that the rabbis note is silent or more accurately put, is simply the sound of the divine breath, the ruach elohim that pervades the universe. May we, in the coming days and months, especially as we go through what is often the dark and cold days of winter, not find ourselves in situations when we experience qotser ruach, the shortness of breath, due to sad news and harsh circumstances. May we instead have many occasions for breathing deeply and experiencing the richness and beauty of this world and life in general, Kein yehi ratzon.
Va’eira: Order in Miracles
Presenting his ‘credentials’ before Pharaoh, Moses threw down his staff before the Egyptian king, and it transformed into a viper. When the magicians of Egypt did the same with their magic, “the staff of Aaron swallowed up their staffs” [Ex. 7:12].
The Sages in Shabbat 97a noted that the Torah does not say that Aaron’s snake swallowed up the magicians’ staffs. It says Aaron’s staff did the swallowing. A double miracle, a “miracle within a miracle” occurred. The viper became a staff once again, and only then – as a staff – did it swallow up the other staffs. What is the significance of this double miracle?
Levels of Miracles
Just as there is an underlying order in the world of nature, so too there is order and structure in the realm of miracles. We may distinguish between two types of laws of the natural world: those of a fundamental nature, and those that have a detailed and specific function. The extent to which a miracle defies natural law depends on the purpose of that divine intervention.
Sometimes it is sufficient to have a minor disruption, and still remain within the overall system of natural law. For example, when the prophet Elisha advised the widow in debt how to miraculously produce oil [II Kings 4:1-7], the oil was not created ex nihilo. Rather, the miracle was based on an existing jar of oil. There occurred no blatant abrogation of the laws of nature; they were merely ‘extended,’ as the small cruse of oil sufficed to fill up many large pots. But the basic framework of natural law was left undisturbed.
The purpose of Elisha’s miracle was to help out a poor woman in need. The goal of Moses’ miraculous signs in Egypt, on the other hand, was far more grandiose. These wonders were meant to demonstrate the power and greatness of the Creator, “so that you will know that I am God here on earth” [Ex. 8:18].
In Egypt, God willed to demonstrate His ability to overrule any law and limitation of the natural world. Therefore, it was necessary to have a “miracle within a miracle.” This exhibited independence and autonomy at all levels of natural law, both specific and fundamental. The miracle of the staff occurred not only as a minor disruption of nature – a level at which the Egyptian magicians could also function – but also at the level of total disregard for the most basic laws of nature, so that one staff could ‘swallow up’ other staffs.
[Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 108-109. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 243-4]
From Melissa Carpenter
And Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moshe, from shortness of ruach and from heavy labor. (Exodus 6:9)
Moshe asks Pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves a leave of absence to spend three days in the wilderness worshiping their god. Pharaoh responds by accusing the Israelites of laziness and giving them extra work: they must collect their own straw to mix with clay, and still make the same quota of bricks. The slaves complain to Moshe, and Moshe complains to God that now the people are even worse off than before. This week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, opens with God reaffirming the divine plan to rescue the children of Israel from Egypt.
Moshe passes on this communication to the Israelite slaves, but they do not listen to him. Why not? The brief explanation ending the sentence in Exodus 6:9 can be translated in many ways. Below are some possibilities; pick one from each column to make your own translation.
“kotzer” of “ruach” and “avodah” that is “kashah”
shortness wind labor difficult
being stunted spirit service heavy
despondency breath ritual stubborn
impatience motivation worship severe
Some translators from biblical Hebrew choose a physical interpretation, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moshe out of shortness of breath and hard bondage (Robert Alter, following Rashi), or a similar phrase. How can you listen to someone promising an unimaginable future when you’re working so hard that you’re panting? Ramban says physical exhaustion made the people impatient and sapped them of the strength to hope.
Other translators take a psychological approach, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moshe because of a constriction of the spirit (the Zohar) and because of the heathen service which weighed heavily upon them (the Targumim, according to Elie Munk). Their suffering was so continuous that they were reduced to animals who could only think about their daily physical needs; they did not have enough human spirit to imagine anything else. Lacking imagination and believing themselves powerless, they paid homage to the Egyptian gods of their slave-masters. This idol worship also prevented them from listening to any communication from their own god.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, writes: “To hear is to open oneself up to vulnerability, change, contingency.” Pharoah the hard-hearted cannot consider even the idea of change, so he refuses to hear out Moshe. Pharoah afflicts his Israelite slaves with the same deafness, by making their lives so hard that they cannot stop and listen to any revolutionary ideas. Thus Egypt, which in Hebrew is called Mitzrayim, Narrow Places, is the place of constriction for both master and slave. It is the place where people are stunted, cut short—“kotzer”—from the freedom of thought that make us human.
In Kabbalistic terms, the children of Israel are stunted in the ruach level of soul. Like animals, they exist from day to day with only the nefesh, the level of soul that animates the body. They have neither time nor energy to access their ruach and neshamah souls. If the neshamah is the soul level where one can hear one’s calling and receive inspiration, ruach is the level where one is seized by the drive and motivation to seek that calling, to do something new.
In the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the ruach—wind or spirit—of God hovers over the face of the waters. Throughout the Torah, certain humans are seized by the irresistible power of the ruach of God, which turns them into prophets or madmen, or perhaps both. A human being’s own ruach may not be as enormous as God’s ruach, but it is still a motivating force that can be ignored only by rigorous denial.
Pharaoh is the king of denial. He does not listen to the word of God because his ruach is stunted; he refuses to believe that change is unavoidable. The children of Israel do not listen to the word of God because their ruach is imprisoned by continuous suffering; they refuse to believe that change can happen to them.
I’ve been in that constricted place, too. I’ve cried over more than one unbearable situation in my life, unable to believe that I could do anything about it or that it would ever change. But each situation did change. Sometimes I heard a different inner voice, and I found a way out. Other times the change happened without an action on my part, by the grace of God, and all I had to do was to respond, to gird my loins and go with it.
But what about when you’re still trapped in the suffering? How do you find the voice you haven’t been hearing? Does it take a temporary break—a deep breath, a real Shabbat, three days in the wilderness—to hear the voice of freedom? Or do you need someone, or something, to lead you out of your Egypt whether you’re ready or not?
From Rabbi SaraLeya Schley
Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2- 9:35)
The last days of Tevet and the Middah of Delight
The week of Rosh Hodesh Shevat
In our parashah Divinity described to Moses how the cry of the Israelites’ suffering was heard on high, reminding God to remember the covenant that had been made with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Using 4 verbs of deliverance – I brought you out, I rescued you, I redeemed you, I took you to me as a people [we recall these actions with the 4 cups of wine at our Passover seder], a promise was made to free the Israelites from their enslavement. When Moses explained this to the people, they could not comprehend the significance of these words due to “restricted breath and hard work – mi-kotzer ruah u’mei-avodah kashah” (Exodus 6:1-9).
The word ruah means both spirit and breath/wind. Kotzer ruah most literally means shortness of breath or constricted breathing, but can equally mean deficiency of spirit, a restricted state of consciousness resulting from oppression and the attendant avodah kashah – excessive, difficult labor.
Similarly, this can be true for us today. When we are overworked, overscheduled and stressed, we are not actively remembering our Connection with godliness and, often, we will not notice the beauty of the birds’ sounds, or the subtle messages available for us to attend to. Stress often leads to restricted breathing which perpetuates the fight-or-flight state of anxiety. In this circumstance, there is little space for oneg – for pleasure.
There is a remedy for this condition from Psalm 118:5: “min ha-meitzar karati Yah, anani va-merhav Yah- from the narrow places I call to Yah, I am answered with expansiveness”. Let us be blessed with remembering to breathe deeply as soon as we become aware of feeling stressed or overworked, and, in doing so, to again be able to experience of the delight possible in each present moment.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days
The Serpent and the Tree of Life
As a man of 80, Moses returns to Egypt and teams up with his brother Aaron, to free the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh. The Divine has given Moses and Aaron a mysterious staff to help them in their task. This staff, created at the dawn of time, has been passed down since the days of Adam. When Aaron throws this staff down before Pharaoh, it becomes a snake. Pharaoh is not impressed by this: He commands his magicians to turn their staff into snakes as well.
If a snake swallows other snakes, this is simply the way of the world, the greater attacking the smaller. So, instead, the snake turns back into a staff and then swallows the other snakes. Pharaoh’s snakes have not been vanquished by a greater might, they have been been reabsorbed into the Tree of Life–for this is what the wooden staff represents. The Divine teaches Pharaoh not of despotic power but of the oneness of all life.
Pharaoh continues to receive this lesson about the power of all the life force. The plagues bring down blood and beasts and insects on Egypt to show Pharaoh his vulnerability to nature and his dependence on the proper workings of the earth. The plagues illustrate that the Egyptians can suffer as well as create suffering; they too are part of the earth and its inhabitants. Each plague Moses and Aaron bring holds the message that all life is one, but Pharaoh cannot yet hear it.
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And I Appeared)
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
The story of Moses in Egypt continues as he confronts Pharaoh and tries to free the Israelites from slavery. God brings the plagues against Egypt. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened again and again.
THE BLESSING OF VA-EYRA comes to us as God’s self-revelation. “I am YHVH – I am Being itself. And yes I am the same one that your ancestors perceived as El Shaddai, the very same One. All the names you have called Me are aspects of the One, and now you are ready to receive a glimpse of the Whole, that Unnameable One.1
“You will see Me and know Me through the process of liberation that you are about to experience… Freedom is the key to knowing Me… Through this process I will bring you to fulfillment, to a state where you can receive the divine inheritance, which is the knowledge of the divine spark at your core. I am YHVH. I am Being itself.”2
In receiving the blessing of Va-eyra, I place my journey in the context of cosmic process. I know that every tragedy I suffer and every delight I enjoy moves me towards the fulfillment of the divine promise. As each face of God appears to me, I can see it in the greater context of the One. Each day in my prayers I can remember (with the Sh’ma3 ) that all conceptions of God (Eloheynu) are aspects of YHVH, which is Being itself.
ONE WAY THAT I WILL OPEN myself to the view of the One is by witnessing the plagues – which represent the manifestation of divine power split off from its wholeness. In Kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition, that wholeness is represented by The Tree of Life which is made up of ten s’firot – divine aspects that mediate between the infinite and finite realms.
When one of these s’firot is broken off from the whole of the Tree, evil comes into the world. The ten plagues correspond to the ten s’firot. Each plague is an aspect of the God-force that is broken off from the Tree. Its separation from the Tree of Life makes it a “blessing in reverse.” The energy is twisted, distorted, and loses its intelligence; disconnected, this energy no longer serves the Whole.
IN PREPARATION FOR OUR FREEDOM, which derives from the perception of the Whole and our inter-connectedness, we witness the destructive power of separation, as each aspect of the God-force breaks itself off and becomes distorted. Blood is a symbol of Life, but in excess becomes its opposite. Z’ev Halevi describes the plagues as “an overbalance of life that becomes deadly to itself.”4
The blessing that comes from witnessing plagues (those tragic situations of obvious and deadly imbalance) is the awakening of the inner force of conscience that turns us towards wholeness and balance, and thus towards freedom.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
WHEN MOSES TELLS THE PEOPLE what God has said, they cannot hear it. The inability to hear and respond to the promise of freedom, to the truth of Oneness, and the self-revelation of God, is attributed in the text to “short spirit” and “hard slavery.”5
At the center of our liturgy is the prayer that says, “Listen! Sh’ma!” Listening is the first step in the process of liberation. Va-eyra reveals to us two main obstacles to listening, and here our spiritual challenge is laid out.
The first challenge to listening is “shortness of spirit.” This is sometimes translated as “impatience.” The process of liberation requires great patience and discipline to take the small, necessary steps that will not necessarily relieve our immediate pain. Resolute patience is required to fully rest in the present moment as it is. This full acceptance of “what is” awakens the power of our presence and allows the process of transformation to unfold. Here is the paradox: One must patiently BE… in order to BECOME.
HARD SLAVERY IS THE SECOND CHALLENGE to the kind of listening that could lead us to freedom. We can become so tied to our work that our busy-ness is the driving force forming our identity. In this atmosphere, we can’t stop long enough to listen. Listening is only possible when there is a degree of stillness and spaciousness. When life is experienced as a constant struggle, the barrage of stress prevents us from receiving the flow of grace that might move us out of bondage.
When we witness the plagues – aspects of the God-force that have been separated off and distorted, we are initially moved to compassion. In the face of immediate suffering and need, our hearts are wrenched open. But when the immediate danger is past and we have recovered from the initial shock, our hearts tend to close again in complacency. We get used to the world in its imbalance and develop strategies that will ensure our short-term survival. This is called the “hardening of the heart.” It is accomplished by narrowing the focus, deadening the senses, and denying any feelings that might threaten the status quo.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE of Va-eyra is to keep the heart open in the face of prolonged suffering and to let the seeds of freedom grow in the darkness. Once you identify the ways in which your heart has hardened, the challenge is to bring beauty and tenderness and compassion to the heart, to soften and penetrate the layers of defense that have been built up around it.
1 “And God spoke to Moses, and said to him: ‘I am the LORD; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.'” (Exodus 6:2-3)
2 Exodus 6:6-8
3 “Listen (Sh’ma) Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
4 Kabbala and Exodus by Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi (Weiser Books, 1988) p. 72
5 Exodus 6:9
6 Thanks to Pauline Oliveras for her teachings about Deep Listening.
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.
Reb Shlomo explained the four levels of redemption in a very beautiful way, which comes through me like this:
V’hotzayti — I will take you out from the sufferings of Mitzraim.
The first level of redemption is getting out of denial. Admitting how bad it is.
I can’t begin the journey until I feel the pain and bitterness of my slavery.
Then I can start.
V’hitzalti — I will save you from their work.
The second level is when I stop serving the slave masters.
I go on strike and stop making the bricks.
I drop out of the system of beliefs, desires, rewards and punishments that enslaves me.
V’ga-alti — I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.
It is not enough to stop serving the slave masters.
I have to walk away from the slave neighborhood, lest I be drawn back in.
I have to leave it behind, cross the Red Sea, head out to the desert.
V’lokachti — I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.
Knowing what I’m walking away from is not yet freedom.
I have to know what I’m walking toward.
Not just “freedom from” – also “freedom for.”
Walking toward Mount Sinai.
Freedom from the matrix of urges and attachments that enslaves me.
Freedom for experiencing God-being at the mountain.
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