Vaera: Willful Blindness

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

 “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me.’ ”  (Shmot./ Exodus 8:16)

Good afternoon! 

Sorry about last week’s Torah commentary- or, more accurately, lack thereof. We do our best but even the well-oiled machinery of rabbineal-list seizes up every now and again. 

This week we’re reading the story of the plagues against Egypt– you know, blood, frogs, lice, these are a few of my favorite things- and Pharaoh’s inability to let the people go or even fully realize what is happening around him. The verse above is the prelude to the fourth plague, the swarms of swarming flies (as translated in JPS) which leave no Egyptian house untouched. What strikes me as interesting is the commandment to meet Pharaoh at the water, presumably as he is emerging from a bath in the river. 

Note that the first two plagues, blood and frogs, affect the river, and the third, the infestation of lice, moves onto the land. Scholars have noted that the plagues encompass every aspect of the natural world- water, land, sky- as if to show the Egyptians the futility of worshiping localized gods of some subset of the cosmos. It’s also interesting that Pharaoh goes back into the water so soon after the river was blood and then teeming with frogs, as if he’s convinced himself that the river is safe now that the danger has moved elsewhere. 

Yet the river is not safe- not because it’s teeming with frogs but because Pharaoh can’t hide from the moral message of Moshe and Aharon. He wishes to believe that the problem is solved as soon as the symptom goes away- but this never works, and indicates to us that Pharaoh is acutely human, hardly a great leader and much less a god on earth. Self-deception, seeing what we want to see, is an inevitable aspect of the human condition; we face great challenges, as individuals and collectively, but we don’t always want to truly see the evidence of those challenges right before our eyes. Like Pharaoh, we go back to the water- that is, our old habits of heart and mind- as the course of least resistance. It’s just so easy to pretend that the world hasn’t changed and so hard to admit that new realities demand a new way of being. 

This little detail, tucked into the larger story, reminds me that Pharaoh is best understood not only as a great and evil villain, but also as a tragic figure, one who simply could not understand the world changing around him until it was too late. Great leaders help the world move forward by confronting and naming hard truths. Few of us rule empires, but any spiritually and morally conscious person can strive to grow in our perceptions and understandings, refusing to retreat into a comfort zone which requires no sacrifice, empathy or ethical reflection. Pharaoh going back into the water is such a profound image of a man unwilling to see and unable to change; seeking truth wherever it is found, and reckoning fearlessly with its implications, is the basis of any true spiritual practice. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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