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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vaera
January 17, 2015 – 26 Tevet 5775

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

God reiterates assurances that Moses’ mission will be successful and that the Israelites will be redeemed. We are provided with a genealogy of Moses's family.

Moses again approaches Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh refuses; God turns Egyptian water into blood. Pharaoh says that he will let the Israelites leave, and God stops the plague. But then, Pharaoh changes his mind.

This is the first example of a recurring pattern: God causes a plague, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites leave, the plague stops, then Pharaoh changes his mind due to a “hardened heart.” The pattern takes place seven times in today's portion.

Theme #1: Blood Simple

Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord. See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood; and the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile.” 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 vessels of wood and stone.” (Exodus 7:17-19)

The first plague is meant to shock the Egyptians, hindering them in all facets of life.

Throughout the world, blood has always been a powerful symbol of both life and death. Because this ambiguous status makes it uncanny, cultures devise numerous rituals and laws to protect human beings who come into contact with it. As a visible reminder of our mortality, it has been used in sacred ritual and magic to purify, to curse, to protect, and to mark sacred space. -- Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

Some of the plague types appear as items in ancient Near Eastern literature. Thus the changing of water into blood is said in our narrative to have been duplicated by the Egyptian magicians “with their spells.” This implies that it, like the snake trick, was part of their professional stock-in-trade. A popular Egyptian story has come down in a late manuscript emanating from Roman times but purporting to center on Prince Khamwas, the fourth son of Rameses II. This young man was a magician who, before entering a contest, told his mother, “Should I be defeated, then when you drink water it will become the color of blood.” -- Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus

The necessities of oral delivery can be imagined in still simpler terms. If you were a Judean herdsman standing in the outer circle of listeners while the story of the Ten Plagues was being read, you might miss a few phrases when God instructs Moses about turning the Nile into blood, but you could easily pick up what you had lost when the instructions were almost immediately repeated verbatim as narrated action. If you were close enough to the reader to catch every word, you could still enjoy the satisfaction of hearing each individual term of God’s grim prediction, first stated in the prophetic future, then restated as accomplished fact, with an occasional elegant variation of the verbatim repetition through the substitution of a synonym. Here, as elsewhere, the solution to what one infers were the physical difficulties of delivering the story orally jibes perfectly with the vision of history that informs the story. -- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative

Questions for Discussion:

Frankel and Teutsch note that blood can be an indicator of both death and life. Is it possible that blood is the first plague allowing God to show the Israelites a promise of life, while at the same time show Egypt the prospect of death? Can we see the plagues as signs of both destruction and hope?

Sarna informs us that Egyptian magicians are very familiar with the use of blood in magical spells. If so, why does God start the series of plagues with a plague that would seem to be ordinary in the eyes of ancient people? Is God trying to lull the Egyptians into thinking that God is unoriginal, or that God has merely pedestrian powers? What would be the purpose of such a strategy? Is setting low expectations an effective way to overwhelm others later?

Alter claims that the power of the story of the Nile River is the visual images in the minds of the listeners, more than the words. Should we think of the first plague as if it was a remarkable film with ordinary dialogue but stunning camera-work? Even when reading the holy words of the Torah, does a mental picture still tell a thousand words?

Theme #2: Easy Being Green

Then Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh’s presence, and Moses cried out to the Lord in the matter of the frogs which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh. And the Lord did as Moses asked; the frogs died out in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. (Exodus 8:8-9)

While modern society might find frogs endearing, the ones sent to the punish Egypt were anything but that.

“Entreat” and “cry” are two of the ten expressions used in the Bible to denote prayer. The Sages taught that Egyptian oppression had sealed the lips of the Children of Israel so that they were unable to pray to the Lord. But the ten plagues, one by one, abolished Pharaoh’s tyranny, thus unsealing the lips of the Israelites and enabling them to make use of all the expressions of prayer. Two of the ten plagues -- the blood and the frogs -- had already come to pass, restoring to the Israelites the use of the two expressions of prayer mentioned in the above verse. -- Hiddushei HaRIM

When the Hebrew women gave birth, they could not scream out, since if they did, their infants would be taken away by the Egyptians. When one is in pain and cannot even cry out, his agony is all the worse. Since the Egyptians did not let the Israelite women cry out, they were now assaulted by the cries of the frogs. -- Zevach Pesach

What Moshe said in his prayer became the norm for that time and for all generations. In accordance with his words, “they shall remain only in the Nile,” to this very day the creeping water creature known as the timsah remains there. There it breeds, and it is said that sometimes it comes out of the Nile where it lives, rising onto the river’s bank and swallowing whatever it finds, even two or three humans at a time. Neither spear nor arrow can overcome its body, unless aimed for the belly. Physicians say it is venomous and that touching its body, even after its death, is harmful to man. It is a sort of frog … this is how R. Hananel interpreted the text. -- Nahmanides

Questions for Discussion:

Hiddushei HaRIM theorizes that, as the plagues continue, the Israelites are increasingly confident that redemption is imminent. The alternative to this suggestion is that the Israelites actually became increasingly despondent each time Pharaoh reversed his decision to let the people go, a process that repeats after each plague. Which is more likely?

Zevach Pesach shares the idea that the screams of the frogs are pay-back to the Egyptians who, as a result of their policies against the Israelites which prevented the slaves (and even their babies) from crying. Why is repressing expression during moments of pain so difficult? What are the negative effects for the one who feels pain? What are the negative effects for the one who prohibits such expression?

Nahmanides understands the frogs in the plague to be much scarier than modern-day frogs. Yet many illustrations of the frogs in haggadot and other stories about the Exodus tend to show the animals as small, even cute (albeit numerous enough to be a nuisance). Do we do so because we don’t wish to frighten children when they learn the story of Passover? Is it a disservice to children to make the plagues seem “adorable?”

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