Vay'eira

This week’s parsha is all about the first eight plagues, inflicted by God upon Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go free. You all know the story – after years of reading it at our Pesach seders, we are intimately familiar with the plagues.

What might not be so clear is the purpose of the plagues. One answer is, to force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go free. But, if we look carefully at the Torah text, we see that this was not just a show of force nor for the purpose of causing pain. The intent was subtler. The text tells us that God Himself provides the answer. The plagues were inflicted so that "Egypt will know that I am God." When Pharaoh first confronted Moses, who was asking for freedom for the Hebrews, Pharaoh responded: "Who is God that I should listen to Him and let the Hebrews go free? I do not know God”. This means that the purpose of the plagues was to make Pharaoh recognize God. Only then would he let the Hebrews leave Egypt. In fact, however, this too is not the final purpose of the plagues. God gives a further explanation to Moses. The plagues come so that the Jewish people will tell their children and grandchildren about what happened, and they "will know that I am God." Considering that some 3,000 years or more later, we sit at our tables for 2 nights every single year and tell the story of the Exodus at Passover, it is obvious that God’s tactic was possibly the most successful marketing strategy of all time – it endured from ancient to contemporary times and it will continue to happen as long as there are Jews in the world to make seders. Ultimately the purpose of the plagues was to change our perception of life, so that, through the generations, we recognize God and the significance of His teachings. For ancient Pharaoh, the plagues meant that he eventually obeyed God and let the Jewish people go free. For us they mean that we recognize God's power in our lives, and therefore make the right step which will bring goodness and healing to the world.

Some other themes:

Listening and Hearing – An important theme of Vay-eira

The Jewish people couldn't listen to Moses because they were working day and night. Slaves have no time to think, no time to ponder a way out of their desperate situation. And as generations of slaves developed, their memory of freedom was gone. The slave mentality is not one that can think creatively – it is a mentality that is unable to process the abstract ideas that Moses tried to impart upon them.

The lesson for us today is, can we hear Moses’ message to us from the vantage point of our own enslavement . . . our enslavement to materialism, to our work, to our schedules and time occupiers. Are we so busy in the mud pits of modern life that we don’t even know that we are slaves?

If you feel that life is lacking you are already halfway to solving the problem, whereas someone who feels superficially fulfilled may be dangerously unaware of his or her spiritual malnutrition. We see people seeking answers, meaning, purpose – everywhere – except where they are bound to find it – not at Costco – not on the beach in Mexico – but right here, in the synagogue, in the Torah, in the Jewish rituals that give us meaning and purpose.

Who needs Torah the most? The one who feels fulfilled. Who needs Shabbat the most? The one who has no time for it!

A teaching from Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at JTS

“Listening and hearing become core themes in the narrative of redemption. What does Parashat Va–eira teach us about hearing? And, more importantly, what does it teach us about leadership? Three elements emerge: understanding context, communicating effectively and designing a strategy for success.”

“Understanding the context. Moses is charged with a yeoman's responsibility –having heard the command of God, he must instill the promise of redemption in the hearts of the people. Though he walks away rejected and crushed numerous times, he fails to take note of the context. What are the people experiencing that prevents them from hearing the divine message? The Torah offers two explanations: kotzer ru'ah and avodah kashah. Although one may literally translate kotzer ru'ah as shortness of breath or spirit, it can also be translated as spiritually crushed. Avodah kashah, or hard labor, speaks to a state of being physically exhausted. Not only were the people physically tired, but they were spiritually demoralized, making it difficult for them to hear the message of freedom.”

“As this week's parashah continues, we are privy to yet a second element that might affect the hearing of the people. After Moses' stunning failure, God comes back at Moses with an even more outrageous request. "Go and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart." Not surprisingly, Moses responds, "The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?" The Hebrew words used to express impeded speech are aral sefatyim – literally of uncircumcised lips. The phrase conjures up the image of a foreskin or barrier. Something is preventing Moses from conveying the essence of God's message. Moses senses that he is not communicating effectively yet is not sure how to proceed.”

“God does not respond to Moses' challenge directly, yet God changes course. Having spoken previously just to Moses, God now broadens the base, including Aaron more fully. "So, the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt." God realizes that the burden is too great for Moses alone to bear and so speaks to Moses' brother Aaron, too. Moses and Aaron must work as a team so that the people will listen.

These three qualities: understanding context, communicating effectively and designing a successful strategy, are crucial to any successful leader. Avivah Zornberg points out beautifully that, "in order to hear, we must clear ourselves of obstruction, open ourselves; for that reason, we read the narrative of the Exodus, culminating in the Song of the Sea, before reading the Shema prayer. The Exodus thus becomes the therapeutic paradigm for preparedness – the catharsis that frees us to hear" (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 111).

As Zornberg demonstrates, our daily liturgy reinforces the need to hear clearly and effectively. The Shema, in which we declare God's Oneness, demands that we hear our own words as we recite the liturgy. The prayer service brilliantly transitions from the triumphant Song of the Sea as the Israelites march from the straits of Egypt into freedom. We repeat those words – breaking the bond of Pharaoh's slavery and embracing the commanding voice of Sinai. Hearing is indeed the key to redemption. But to realize redemption we must hear the context, communicate effectively and be deliberate in thought and action.

Another idea - The Sages tell us that Pharaoh is an archetype of the yetzer hara - the "evil inclination." In Hebrew, Pharaoh's name is a composite of two words, peh and rah - evil mouth. He represents the part of each of us that, so to speak, whispers evil in our ears. If we see how Pharaoh works, we can understand how this part of us works, too.

Moses comes to Pharaoh and asks that the Israelites be allowed to leave. Pharaoh's response is to immediately decree more work for the Jews. This is not just spiteful anger. It is the root of his whole strategy: the more people work, the less they think. And the less they think, the less they make meaningful and independent decision.

Another theme: G-d reveals Himself to Moses. Employing the "four expressions of redemption," He promises to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, deliver them from their enslavement, redeem them and acquire them as His own chosen people at Mount Sinai; He will then bring them to the Land He promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage. An interesting note: our commentators tell us that the four cups of wine at the seder table are representative of the these four expressions of redemption.

A question: If Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God, why was he punished for refusing to Let The People Go? (Rashi: during the first 5 plagues it doesn’t say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Instead it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. As a punishment for his stubbornness, he was prevented from repenting (doing Teshuva) during the last 5 plagues).

According to Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, the outcomes that we experience are a result of the free choices we make. She talks about Pharaoh having made the choice to keep the Israelites as slaves and not let them go, as Moses first asked. The resulting “Hardening of his heart” was a consequence of that initial choice.

SOME TORAH TREATS!

I read an interesting piece on the relationship between the actual plagues and the Egyptian deities.

The Egyptians, like many pagan cultures, worshiped a wide variety of nature-gods, and attributed to their powers the natural phenomena they saw in the world around them. There was a god of the sun, of the river, of childbirth, of crops, etc. Events like the annual flooding of the Nile, which fertilized their croplands, were evidence of their gods' powers and good will. When Moses approached Pharaoh, demanding that he let the people go, Pharaoh responded by saying, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Thus began the challenge to show whose God was more powerful.

Some critics of the Bible claim that there is no verifiable evidence to support the Bible’s account of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. They say that Egyptologists have found no record of the Hebrew people in Egypt or the ten plagues as described in the book of Exodus. However, there is external evidence and it can be useful in silencing detractors who say the ten plagues and the Exodus are just myths. The Ipuwer Papyrus is an ancient document that provides a possible independent record of the ten plagues in Egypt. It describes a great disaster that took place in ancient Egypt. The oldest copy dates to around 1400 BCE, placing it close to the time of the Exodus (circa 1446 BCE). The Ipuwer Papyrus is the sole surviving manuscript of an ancient Egyptian poem officially designated as Papyrus Leiden I-344. The poem is known as “The Admonitions of Ipuwer.” A new edition is available now entitled “The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All.” Dutchman Giovanni Anastasi purchased the Ipuwer Papyrus in 1828, and it is now housed in Leiden, the Netherlands, at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

I will use some of the evidence from the Ipuwer Papyrus to illustrate the reality of the plagues. The first plague, turning the Nile to blood, was a judgment against Apis, the god of the Nile, Isis, goddess of the Nile, and Khnum, guardian of the Nile. The Nile was also believed to be the bloodstream of Osiris, who was reborn each year when the river flooded. The river, which formed the basis of daily life and the national economy, was devastated, as millions of fish died in the river and the water was unusable. Pharaoh was told “By this you will know that I am the LORD...” (Exodus 7:17).

The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere” (2:5–6). “The river is blood. . . . Men shrink from tasting—human beings, and thirst after water” (2:10). “That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof? All is ruin” (3:10–13). The second plague, bringing frogs from the Nile, was a judgment against Heqet, the frog-headed goddess of birth. Frogs were thought to be sacred and not to be killed. God had the frogs invade every part of the homes of the Egyptians, and when they died, their stinking bodies were heaped up in offensive piles all through the land (Exodus 8:13-14). The third plague, gnats or lice, was a judgment on Set, the god of the desert. Unlike the previous plagues, the magicians were unable to duplicate this one, and declared to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). The fourth plague, flies, was a judgment on either Re or Uatchit, who were both depicted as flies. In this plague, God clearly distinguished between the Israelites and the Egyptians, as no swarms of flies bothered the areas where the Israelites lived (Exodus 8:21-24). The fifth plague, the death of livestock, was a judgment on the goddess Hathor and the god Apis, who were both depicted as cattle. As with the previous plague, God protected His people from the plague, while the cattle of the Egyptians all died. God was steadily destroying the economy of Egypt, while showing His ability to protect and provide for those who obeyed Him. Pharaoh even sent investigators (Exodus 9:7) to find out if the Israelites were suffering along with the Egyptians, but the result was a hardening of his heart against them. The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan” (5:5). “Behold, cattle are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together (9:2–3). The sixth plague, boils, was a judgment against several gods over health and disease (Sekhmet, Sunu, and Isis). This time, the Bible says that the magicians “could not stand before Moses because of the boils.” Clearly, these religious leaders were powerless against the God of Israel. Before God sent the last three plagues, Pharaoh was given a special message from God. These plagues would be more severe than the others, and they were designed to convince Pharaoh and all the people “that there is none like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). Pharaoh was even told that he was placed in his position by God, so that God could show His power and declare His name through all the earth (v. 16). As an example of His grace, God warned Pharaoh to gather whatever cattle and crops remained from the previous plagues and shelter them from the coming storm. Some of Pharaoh's servants heeded the warning (v. 20), while others did not.

The seventh plague, hail, attacked Nut, the sky goddess, Osiris, the crop fertility god, and Set, the storm god. This hail was unlike any that had been seen before. It was accompanied by a fire which ran along the ground, and everything left out in the open was devastated by the hail and fire. Again, the children of Israel were miraculously protected, and no hail damaged anything in their lands. The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire” (2:10). “Lower Egypt weeps. . . . The entire palace is without its revenues. To it belong [by right] wheat and barley, geese and fish” (10:3–6). “Forsooth, grain has perished on every side” (6:3). “Forsooth, that has perished which was yesterday seen. The land is left over to its weariness like the cutting of flax” (5:12). Before God brought the next plague, He told Moses that the Israelites would be able to tell their children of the things they had seen God do in Egypt and how it showed them God's power. The eighth plague, locusts, again focused on Nut, Osiris, and Set. The later crops, wheat and rye, which had survived the hail, were now devoured by the swarms of locusts. There would be no harvest in Egypt that year. The ninth plague, darkness, was aimed at the sun god, Re, who was symbolized by Pharaoh himself. For three days, the land of Egypt was smothered with an unearthly darkness, but the homes of the Israelites had light. The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “The land is without light” (9:11). The tenth and last plague, the death of the firstborn males, was a judgment on Isis, the protector of children. In this plague, God was teaching the Israelites a deep spiritual lesson. Unlike the other plagues, which the Israelites survived by virtue of their identity as God's people, this plague required an act of faith by them. God commanded each family to take an unblemished male lamb and kill it. The blood of the lamb was to be smeared on the top and sides of their doorways, and the lamb was to be roasted and eaten that night. Any family that did not follow God's instructions would suffer in the last plague. God described how He would send the death angel through the land of Egypt, with orders to slay the firstborn male in every household, whether human or animal. The only protection was the blood of the lamb on the door. When the angel saw the blood, he would pass over that house and leave it untouched (Exodus 12:23). This is where the term “Passover” comes from. It is a memorial of that night in ancient Egypt when God delivered His people from bondage. While the Israelites found God's protection in their homes, every other home in the land of Egypt experienced God's wrath as their loved ones died. This grievous event caused Pharaoh to finally release the Israelites.

The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls” (4:3 and 5:6). “Forsooth, the children of princes are cast out in the streets” (6:12). “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere” (2:13). “It is groaning throughout the land, mingled with lamentations” (3:14). The Ipuwer Papyrus also contains a possible reference to the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt, laden with treasures: “Gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze . . . are fastened on the neck of female slaves” (3:2; cf.Exodus 12:35–38). Further, there is a possible description of the pillar of fire: “Behold, the fire has mounted up on high. Its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land” (7:1; cf.Exodus 13:20–22). Egyptologist David Rohl, has written two books on how biblical accounts relating to Egypt, Joseph, and Moses are astonishingly accurate. He believes Joseph and Moses were historic characters and cites Bronze Age slave lists containing Hebrew names, the grave goods of an underclass discovered at Avaris (the biblical Goshen), and Egyptian “plague pits” full of skeletal remains. Rohl believes that while the Bible does not need confirmation from secular historians, it is interesting that independent records of biblical events exist—records with remarkable parallels to the biblical accounts. By the time the Israelites left Egypt, they had a clear picture of God's power, God's protection, and God's plan for them. For those who were willing to believe, they had convincing evidence that they served the true and living God. Sadly, many still failed to believe, which led to other trials and lessons by God. The result for the Egyptians and the other ancient people of the region was a dread of the God of Israel. Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and sent his chariots after the Israelites. When God opened a way through the Red Sea for the Israelites, then drowned all of Pharaoh's armies there, the power of Egypt was crushed, and the fear of God spread through the surrounding nations (Joshua 2:9-11).