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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAERA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 28, 2006 - 28 Tevet 5766

Annual: Ex. 6:2 - 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 7:8 - 8:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 357; Hertz p. 236)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 369; Hertz p. 244)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

God tells Moses God's true name, Yud - Hey - Vav - Hey, saying that God had appeared to our ancestors as El Shaddai. God promises Moses that He will bring the people forth from Egypt. The people do not listen to Moses because their spirits have been downtrodden. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh. Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh's magicians do the same, turning their rods into snakes, but Aaron's rod swallows their rods.

With this we begin the story of the Ten Plagues. This portion tells the story of the first seven plagues the story of the last three plagues is told next week. Moses and Aaron meet Pharaoh at the Nile River early in the morning. Aaron strikes the river with his rod and the river turns to blood. All the fish die. This plague is followed in this week's reading by frogs, lice, swarms of flies or wild animals, cattle disease, boils, and a fiery hail. Each time Pharaoh hardens his heart, and refuses to let the Israelites go.

The plagues seem to come in sets of three. The first of each three is preceded by Moses asking Pharaoh to let the people go, with a warning about what is to come. The second is done in front of Pharaoh. The third is done outside Pharaoh's presence. The plagues build up towards a climax, ending next week with the slaying of the firstborns.

For the first number of plagues, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his heart or the heart of Pharaoh was hardened. Only after the sixth plague does it say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. It seems that if someone does the wrong act often enough, it becomes second nature, as if God is doing it.

Issue #1 - Pride

"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:3)

Discussion

  1. God knew from the beginning that Pharaoh would harden his heart? How? God knew that Pharaoh was a proud man. Pride prevented him from saying "I'm wrong. I'm sorry." If pride was the issue, was God actively hardening Pharaoh's heart, or just recognizing that Pharaoh could not humble himself at all? Is that behavior unusual? How often does pride get in our way when we should reconcile with someone?
  2. The Bible teaches "Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall"(Proverbs 16:18). Pride is identified with the evil inclination. What is wrong with pride? Is always a negative trait? Imagine a person with no pride at all. Isn't it likely that such a person would become a doormat, with others constantly taking advantage of him or her? Is it healthy to be completely without pride in yourself or your actions and accomplishments? How can we find the balance of having pride when necessary, and swallowing our pride when necessary?
  3. As mentioned above, the first several times that he had interactions with Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Eventually God hardened his heart. How can we understand this situation and the subtle difference in nuance? Could it be that for Pharaoh hardening his heart became the standard response? Did it become second nature, more than just a habit, hardwired into his brain? According to the midrash, "In the beginning, the evil inclination is like a spider web; after a while, it becomes like a heavy rope"(Genesis Rabbah 22:6). Does this idea still ring true today? Can this observation teach us about how we should deal with our own bad habits and addictions?
  4. There is a Hasidic teaching that every human being should carry two pieces of paper in his or her pocket at all times. When you feel down, you should take out the paper on which is written, "What is man that you should be mindful of him…. You have made him little less than angels" (Psalms 8:5-6). And when you feel proud and boastful, you should pull out the paper on which is written, "I am but dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Why would the rabbis suggest that is a good way to live? What does this teach us about the kind of attitude for which we should strive?

Issue #2 - God's Body

"Go unto Pharaoh in the morning, as he goes out towards the water, and you shall stand by the river's brink to meet him, and the rod which was turned into a serpent shall you take in your hand" (Exodus 7:15)

Discussion

  1. Moses met Pharaoh down by the Nile River at the crack of dawn and threatened to turn the water to blood. A well-known midrash asks, "Why was Pharaoh down by the river so early in the morning? Don't kings like to sleep late?" Pharaoh tried to pose as a god. He did not want people to know that he had bodily needs like everybody else, so each day Pharaoh would sneak out of the palace early in the morning, before others were awake, to take care of his needs at the Nile. Moses, who knew of Pharaoh's habit, was waiting for him there (Exodus Rabbah 9:8).
  2. Judaism is adamant that God does not have a body. In Yigdal, the poem based on Maimonides' 13 principles of faith that is sung to conclude services on Friday evening, we sing, "He has no semblance of a body and no body." Why is Judaism so emphatic about God having no body? Could it be because all physical things are subject to entropy -- they wear down with time? Might there be other reasons?
  3. Christianity, on the other hand, is built on the principle of incarnation. God took on a human body and walked as a man on this earth. Why has Judaism rejected this idea? If Jesus was not God incarnate, as many Christian groups believe him to be, then how ought Jews to view Jesus, seen by Christians as the son of God? Was Jesus the messiah; a prophet; a great teacher; or a mere mortal like the rest of us?
  4. What lessons can we learn by accepting the concept that God has no body? How does that fit with the teaching that God is everywhere? Could one answer be Rabbi Harold Shulweis' notion that the potential for godliness is everywhere?

 
 
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