PARASHAT VAERA - MEVAREKHIM HAHODESH
January 21, 2012 – 26 Tevet 5772
Annual: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial: Exodus 7:8 – 8:15 (Etz Hayim p. 357; Hertz p. 236)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21 (Etz Hayim p. 370 Hertz p. 244)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
God tells Moses again about his mission – he must demand that Pharaoh release his
Israelite slaves. God also tells Moses that He will fulfill His promises to the patriarchs.
Moses describes his reluctance to approach Pharaoh, presciently fearing that neither the
tyrant nor the dispirited Israelites will listen to him. God assigns 83-year-old Aaron to
accompany and assist his 80-year-old brother, Moses, and instructs the brothers to perform
a “wonder” in Pharaoh’s court to bolster their credibility: turn Aaron’s walking staff into
a serpent. When Pharaoh’s court magicians perform the same trick, Moses’ serpent
swallows the serpents the Egyptians produce.
When Pharaoh remains intransigent despite this marvel, Moses and Aaron initiate a series
of plagues. Seven of the ten plagues are included in Parshat Vaera. Pharaoh’s magicians
are able to replicate the first two plagues. They turn water into blood, although the
Egyptian people already were struggling to find water. When the land was inundated with
frogs, the magicians compound the crisis by bringing still more frogs.
The third plague, lice, mercifully is beyond the Egyptian wizards’ capacity, though they
do attempt to create more such vermin. The magicians infer from their magical limitations
that a stronger force indeed is at work: “This is the finger of God,” they concede. Pharaoh,
tragically, is far slower to learn this crucial lesson or to conduct himself accordingly.
Translators debate the nature of the fourth plague (in Hebrew, arov). Most Jewish
translations assert the term refers to packs of wild animals, while many Christian
translations indicate swarms of insects. Whatever the nature of the plague, its divine
origins are further indicated by the fact that Goshen, where the slaves live, is spared it
entirely. The plague of cattle disease, which also struck only Egyptian animals, is followed
by the plagues of boils and hail, which also were kept from harming Israelites in body or
property. Inexplicably, though the text insists that all Egyptian livestock perished during
the cattle disease epidemic, the descriptions of both the boils and the fiery hail include
afflicted Egyptian animals. After each devastating national blow, Pharaoh persists in
defying God by refusing to free the slaves, allowing God’s promised punishments to
continue in full measure.
Theme #1: “Field Promotion”
“The Lord replied to Moses: ‘See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.’” (Exodus 7:1)
“The role of God to Pharaoh – That is, as judge and punisher, to inflict the
plagues and suffering upon him.” (Rashi)
“Moses is to fill the role of God in negotiations with Pharaoh, who claimed
divinity for himself. Moses’ divinely endowed power and authority will expose
the hollowness of that claim.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
“If God is God, there can be no others… We might distill the entire Torah down
to that life-changing but fleeting realization. The Torah is the story of what
happens to people when they forget about that and when they remember it again.
I’m God; you’re not.” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)
“A man is a little thing while he works by and for himself, but when he gives
voice to the rules of love and justice, he is godlike.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
“The prophet and the martyr do not see the hooting throng. Their eyes are fixed
on the eternities.” (Benjamin Cardozo)
Questions for Discussion
Rashi associates the term “God” exclusively with punishment and the infliction
of human suffering! Is this interpretation offensive? How else might we
understand Moses’ “God-like” function in Pharaoh’s court?
How does the Torah (and the broader Jewish tradition) go to great lengths to
demonstrate that Moses was very much human – a “mere” mortal?
How flattering is Aaron’s designation as Moses’ prophet? Does this simply
reinforce Aaron’s subservience? Does it attribute eternal values and concerns to
him, as suggested by Cardozo?
If Moses’ mission is to disabuse Pharaoh of his delusions of divinity, is
appointing Moses as a “God” to the Egyptian king the most effective tactic? Does
Moses show Pharaoh the truth by succeeding in his “divine” role – or by
demonstrating that no human can succeed in pursuit of divinity? How might
Rabbi Kushner and Professor Sarna approach these questions?
How do we properly aspire to godliness (as opposed to divinity!!)? What
parallels and applications does Emerson’s comment have in Jewish life?
Theme #2: “Digital Media”
“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s
heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.” (Exodus 8:15)
“‘It is the finger of God!’ The aim of the first group of plagues – ‘in order that
you will know that I am God’ - has been achieved. It should be added that it was
specifically the Egyptians who first needed to be taught about the existence of a
transcendental Divine Cause, for - as opposed to other ancient Middle Eastern
religions - Egyptian culture regarded the king himself as a god. This is
highlighted in the haftara of parashat Va’era - Yechezkel’s prophecy of
punishment for Egypt, in which we read, ‘Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh -
king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of his river, who
said, The river is mine; I made it for myself.’” (Rabbi Amnon Bazak)
“The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand
of God.” (President John F. Kennedy)
“It is only in misery that we recognize the hand of God leading good men to
good.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
“That night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her.
‘Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me?’
‘I can’t sleep on occasion.’
‘Why? Do you see that big hand pointing a finger at you?’
‘Yes. Sometimes.’” (From the movie “Doubt”)
Questions for Discussion
What is the significance of the peculiar metaphor “the finger of God”? Does
God’s “finger” accuse (as in “Doubt”)? Does it point us in the right direction (as
in Goethe)? Does it indicate the ultimate source of human freedom and dignity
(as in Kennedy’s usage)? Does it represent the limitations of human power and
self-determination (as in Rabbi Bazak) – perhaps explaining why just a finger is
mentioned, God’s whole hand being more than is required to steer the course of
human events? Do all of these nuances apply simultaneously to our text?
How does the reference to God’s finger here differ from the same term in Exodus
31:18, where the Torah indicates that the Decalogue was inscribed on the Tablets
with “God’s finger”? How do these two verses inform and interpret each other?
Why did the Egyptian court magicians come to their realization about God’s role
at this particular juncture? When does Pharaoh come to share their insight? The
Egyptian people? The Israelites?
What events or experiences have led you to conclude (even if you use other
words) that “this is the finger of God”?
Parshat Vaera, read on January 21, 2012, includes a graphic description of the
sixth plague: “an inflammation breaking out in boils on man and beast
throughout the land of Egypt. The magicians were unable to confront Moses
because of the inflammation.” On January 21, 1677, America’s first medical
publication – a pamphlet about smallpox – was released in Boston.
In Ashkenazi practice, memorial prayers for the dead (El Malei Rachamim), as
well as Av Ha-Rachamim, a prayer recalling martyrs of the Jewish people, are
omitted on Shabbat Mevarchim – the Sabbath preceding rosh chodesh, and on
which a blessing announcing the new moon is included in the Torah service (see
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 284:7; Mishnah Berurah 284:17). These somber
prayers are recited, however, on the Sabbaths when the months of Iyar and Sivan
are announced, as these months are associated with extensive massacres and
martyrdoms dating to the First Crusade. Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Ha-Kohen Kook,
son of the saintly Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, taught that
following the grievous national losses and unrelenting martyrdom of the
Holocaust period, Av Ha-Rachamim should now be recited every Shabbat,
whether or not the blessing for the new moon is scheduled.