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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAERA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 8, 2005 - 27 Tevet 5765

Annual: Ex. 6:2 - 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 6:2 - 7:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 369; Hertz p. 244)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Summary

At the end of last week's Parshah Moshe is discouraged by his failed attempt to convince Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to take a brief holiday to worship the Lord. Not only does Pharaoh reject Moses' request, but he increases the work load which the Israelites must bear. Faced with Moshe's demands, Pharaoh asks, "Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go?" As this week's parshah opens, God brings a message of hope to Moshe and an answer to Pharaoh's question.

As the Parshah continues we learn of the devastating plagues that God inflicts upon the Egyptians. Scholars have long analyzed the list of ten plagues to uncover hidden patterns and messages in their order. Maimonides and others point out that the plagues follow a definite pattern. There are three series of three plagues followed by the tenth and final plague, the death of the first born. In each series Pharaoh is warned of the plagues twice followed by the third plague which occurs without warning. This pattern suggests Pharaoh's free will as well as his accountability. Pharaoh refuses to heed God's warning during the first two plagues and is punished without warning during the third. As we read the plagues in synagogue what other patterns do you notice?

Theme # 1: What's in a Name?

God Spoke to Moses and Said to him: I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH. (Exodus 6:2-3)

Derash: Study

  • The letters, YHVH, is an attempt to capture the four Hebrew letters of God's formal name, Yud-hay-vav-hay. We usually pronounce this name as Adonai or Hashem. This is based on using the Hebrew letters in conjunction with the vowels which vocalize the word "Elohim." We no longer know how the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, was originally pronounced by the high priest in the ancient Temple. The name "Jehovah," as in Jehovah's Witnesses is an attempt to transliterate this name of God.
    'I did not make myself known' is not written here but 'I was not known;' (God says:) I was not recognized by the Patriarchs by My attribute of faithfulness because of which my name is called YHVH, denoting faithful to fulfill my words, for I have made promises to them and I have not yet fulfilled them. (Rashi)
  • What, then, does the phrase "I did not make Myself known" mean? In the ancient world names in general and the name of god in particular, possessed dynamic quality and served to express character, attributes, and power. The names of gods were identified with their nature, status and function. Thus to say, "I did not make Myself known to them by My name," is to state that the Patriarchs did not experience the specific power that is associated with the name YHVH. That power - to be displayed in the coming power of redemption -- belongs to the future. (Etz Hayim Commentary on Exodus 6:3)
  • There are dozens of different names for God in the Bible and the later Jewish tradition. Here are just a few of the many names which we find in our literature and prayers:
    • Elohaynu V'elohay Avotaynu - Our God and God of our ancestors
    • HaKadosh Baruch Hu - The Holy One blessed be He
    • HaRachaman - The Merciful One
    • Aveenu Shebashamayim - Our Father in Heaven
    • Oseh Shalom Bimormav - The One who makes peace in the heavens
    • Hashem - literally "The Name" The name used for God by many traditional Jews in order to avoid taking God's name in vain
    • Tzur Yisrael - Rock of Israel
    • Adon Olam - Master of the Universe or Master of the World or Eternal Master (depending on the translation)
    • Roi - My Shepherd
    • Shechina - The Indwelling Presence of God; in Jewish Mysticism this name is used to describe the 'feminine' aspect of God in contrast to the 'Holy One blessed be He,' the masculine aspect of God.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The opening section of Va-era has a great deal to say about the names of God. At first glance it would appear that Moses is learning something that the Patriarch's did not know. Yet the four letter name of God is used frequently in the earlier chapters of the Bible. So what has God revealed to Moses by telling him that his name is YHVH that the Patriarchs did not know?
  2. How does Rashi understand this verse? What does he mean when he speaks of God's attribute of faithfulness? How is the God of Genesis different from the God of Exodus?
  3. >Look at the list of names of God taken from the Bible, prayer book and our tradition. Which of these names appeals to you? Why? How do they reflect your personal beliefs about God?
  4. All Hebrew words are either masculine or feminine. Should we refer to God with names that are masculine or feminine? How should a translator of the prayer book deal with this problem today? If you were writing your own prayer what would you call God?

Theme # 2: Showing Gratitude

And the Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt - its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water - that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in its vessels of wood and stone. (Exodus 7:19)

Derash: Study

  • And the Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron: (Exodus 7:19) R. Tanchum taught: Why did not Moses smite the waters? Because God said: 'It is not proper that the waters which protected you when you were placed in the river should now be smitten by you. No, they shall be smitten by none but Aaron.' (Shemot Rabbah 9:10)
  • Moses was protected by the waters of the Nile River when, as an infant, his mother put him in a wicker basket and placed him in the river in order to protect him from the Egyptian official who came to kill the Israelites male infants. It was inappropriate that the river that had protected Moses should now be punished by him. If it is wrong for us to show ingratitude to an inanimate object, how much more so when dealing with our fellow human beings!
    Why did God begin by bringing the plague of blood upon the Egyptians? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. Therefore the Holy One said to Moses, "Go, and in their very presence smite their gods," in accord with the saying "When idols are smashed, their priests are abashed." God will not punish a people until He first punishes its gods. "Over their rivers" (Exodus 7:19): wherever there was water, it turned into blood. "And over all its bodies of water" (ibid.): even water that was in a kettle turned into blood. Even what an Egyptian spit out of his mouth turned into blood, as is said, "And there shall be blood throughout all of Egypt" (ibid.). (Shemot Rabbah 9:10)
  • Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Some of the plagues were carried out by Aaron, some by Moses, and some by God. According to the Midrash, why did Aaron and not Moses inflict the first plague upon the Egyptians? A similar comment to the Midrash above is made about the third plague, Kinnim or Lice. Moses causes lice by throwing a handful of "the dust of the earth" into the sky. How did the dust of the earth protect Moses earlier in his life? (Hint - See Exodus 2:12) Review all of the plagues and see which plagues were carried out by Aaron, which by Moses and which were a joint effort. Is there a pattern to the plagues?
  2. What other reason may explain why God singled out the Nile River as the object of the first plague. What did the Nile symbolize to the people of Egypt and how did this fit with the overall purpose of the plagues? The second Midrash above suggests that the first plague affected not only the Nile but every body of water in Egypt. What is it about the verse that led the sages to suggest this particular interpretation of the Biblical verse?
  3. How does Judaism institutionalize the expression of gratitude? Look at the list of blessings called Birchot Hashachar with which we begin the daily service (Sim Shalom, Page 1). What type of things are we supposed to be grateful for? How do you express gratitude in your daily life?
  4. Make a list of things for which you are grateful. Which of them already has a traditional Berachah? Make up a blessing for those for which there is no blessing.

Glossary

  • Rashi -- Rabbi Shimon Yitzhaki, (1040-1105 CE) considered the greatest of the commentators on the Bible in the middle Ages.of the plagues and see which plagues were carried out by Aaron, which by Moses and which were a joint effort. Is there a pattern to the plagues?
  • Shemot Rabbah - The second part of a ten volume collection of Midrashic homilies collected in the fifth and sixth centuries covering the five books of Moses and the five Megillot (scrolls).of the plagues and see which plagues were carried out by Aaron, which by Moses and which were a joint effort. Is there a pattern to the plagues?
  • Birchot Hashachar - An opening passage made up of fifteen blessings which recite as part of the daily Shacharit Service. Originally these blessings were recited at home as part of the daily regimen (waking up, getting out of bed, stretching, putting on clothes, etc.)

 
 
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