Archive for Vaera

Vaera: Rivers of Blood

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera 
 
Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 7:23)
 
This week we begin the plagues upon Egypt, along with the famous subtext of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. What caught my eye this week is Pharaoh’s reaction to the first plague, that of turning the river into blood. After the Egyptian magicians did something similar, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” or “hardened” [vayehezak, from the word for strength] and he paid no heed to Moshe and Aaron. Then the Torah adds another detail: the verse above, we see that he turned and went into his palace, and literally “didn’t put this on his heart either,” 
 
“Either?” What else did Pharaoh choose to ignore? Some commentators suggest that gam le’zot [e.g, “this too” or “this as well”] refers to the fact that there are two miracles described in Chapter 7, one of turning the rod into a snake and one of turning the river into blood. So “this too” or “this either” could mean that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against believing in these two miracles; he didn’t take heed to either one. 
 
That’s a very plausible and simple way to read the text, but in the light of recent events, it occurred to me that Pharaoh is choosing not to see two different things when the river is turned to blood. First, according to the simple reading of the text, he is turning away from Moshe’s demonstration of God’s power, and therefore turning away from Moshe’s message of liberation for the Hebrew slaves. Yet in a very real sense, the river was “turned to blood” long before Moshe and Aharon showed up: you may remember that at the very end of Exodus 1, Pharaoh orders all the male Hebrew babies thrown into the river, in order to break, reduce and demoralize the people. 
 
Remembering this, it seems to me that Pharaoh paying no attention to “this either” implies that the plague of turning water to blood has no effect on a man who is already morally cold to the blood he ordered spilled into that same water. To put it another way, there was already a river of blood and the hearts of the rulers were hardly broken, so why should a parlor trick matter? Pharaoh goes home and sets nothing on his heart, because his heart has already learned to ignore the suffering around him. 
 
Lest you think I am describing some uniquely morally deformed monarch, whose example is far removed from the ordinary citizen who may be reading this, let me remind you that at approximately the time that the world’s attention was focused on the horrific attacks on journalists and Jews in Paris, another militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, was murdering hundreds, if not thousands, in Nigeria. The Syrian civil war rages on, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and blood is spilled daily in Iraq, Congo, and Sudan, to name just a few of the ongoing conflicts in the world. There are rivers of blood being spilled, and it’s so easy to go home and set nothing on our hearts, because it’s so far away, and so complicated, and there’s not much we can do anyway. . . . . 
 
All of which might be true, but the day we stop caring is the day Pharaoh wins. 
 
“Let my people go” means envisioning a world without rivers of blood. That world seems far away, but the whole point of Exodus is to remind us that Pharaoh doesn’t get the last word. Freedom and justice and peace are possible, but only if we don’t turn away and go home. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vaera: Master over Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

The Holy One said to Moses, “See! I have made you master over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your prophet.” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:1)

Good afternoon! Last week we introduced Moshe and learned that the Israelites were groaning under slavery in Egypt; this week the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh begins in earnest.

Last week Moshe was commissioned at the burning bush to go back to Egypt, but he hesitates, not sure if he has the right or standing to speak to the king or represent the Israelites. So God both commands and reassures him, thus reorienting Moshe from the belief that he had to be accepted by humans in order to speak words of prophetic justice. The narrative is seemingly interrupted by a genealogy of the heads of the clans- we’ll discuss that another time- but when it picks up again in chapter 7, God says, as in the verse above, that Moshe will be an Elohim to Pharaoh, and Aharon will be the speaker or prophet.

As you probably know, Elohim usually means “God” in the Hebrew Bible, but it can also mean human judges or authorities. (Cf. Psalm 82, for example.) So while the Jewish Publication Society, for example, translates this phrase as “placed you in the role of God to Pharaoh,” many other translators and commentators assume the more secular meaning of lord or master. The only problem is: that also raises questions, since a major theme of the story is Pharaoh refusal to recognize any authority other than himself! As king he not only initially ignores Moshe’s requests, he mocks them.

So in what sense is Moshe a “master” or “lord” over Pharaoh? As I read it, the verse is not about political but moral authority. Pharaoh may be king, but he is hardly master even over his own thoughts and impulses, whereas Moshe stands on the side of justice and prophetic ethics, giving him a steadfastness and clarity that the arrogant Pharaoh can never have. Moshe is “master” over Pharaoh because the good and right will, we believe, eventually win out over the corrupt and violent aspect of human nature. To put it another way: Pharaoh is concerned with the well-being of Pharaoh, but Moshe’s quest is grounded in a concern for the welfare of the people and the justice of God- and which do you think gives you greater mastery over self and gathers more power over the course of a long struggle?

Moshe becomes master to Pharaoh not only because he seeks freedom for his people, but because he is grounded in a wider sense of history and purpose than Pharaoh, the archetype of power-seeking and ego in human history, could even imagine. That’s the kind of vision and deep sense of connection to God, self and others that carries us through the inevitable conflicts and transitions of life; only by seeing something beyond ourselves can we find deep purpose, courage and mastery over self, which is the most important mastery of all.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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, 

RNJL 

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Vaera: The Inner Frog. . . .

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’era

Good afternoon!

Our last commentary for the Gregorian year 2011 is Va’era, in which Moshe calls a whole bunch of plagues down on Pharaoh and the land of Egypt, including, of course, frogs:

“If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs.The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.'” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:27-29)

Now, in the translation above, there’s a distinction made between the frogs going “in” to the palace, the bed, the houses, and even the ovens and kneading bowls, and “up on you” [Pharaoh] and “your courtiers.” In Hebrew, however, it’s all the same preposition, the letter bet, which can mean “in,” or “on,” among other meanings, depending on context. Our friend Rashi chooses to understand the latter part of the sentence as conveying the same meaning as the first part: e.g., the frogs are “in” Pharoah and his courtiers. In fact, Rashi takes this to mean that the frogs would enter into the innards of Pharoah and his court and croak there!

Here’s a perfect example of things being less ridiculous than they seem- as opposed to many other phenomena, most of which appear on cable news, which are far more ridiculous than we general acknowledge. The frogs being “in” Pharoah is not, I think, to be taken literally, but is instead a metaphor within a metaphor, since the plagues themselves can be seen as a narrative assertion that no man, least of all Pharaoh, is a god. Nature will not be controlled by humankind; we are, instead, humbled by it.

The image of the frogs entering into Pharaoh and croaking from within him is at once playful, even comic – reminding us that ridicule is the ultimate weapon against tyrants- and also a visual metaphor for an inchoate awareness that the status quo of Egypt will not stand. I think Rashi means to suggest that with the plague of frogs, something is beginning to rumble and croak, as it were, within Pharaoh- not within his body, but within his conscience, perhaps, or at least consciousness.

Thus the force of verse 8:11, in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened as soon as the frogs are lifted; it’s quite amazing the extent to which human beings can shut out awareness of things which discomfort or disturb a carefully constructed view of self and surroundings. Pharaoh is not stupid: the awareness of his precarious position can enter him, but the work of reevaluating his relationship to the world is perhaps too hard, perhaps too scary, perhaps too humbling, perhaps too unsettling.

Yet to be introspective is to be human: if you hear a frog croaking within you, or any other sign that the world is calling you to see it anew, listen and reflect, learn and grow! Pharaoh could not, but we can.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy solar New Year,

RNJL

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Vaera: Faith and Justice

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Vaera ; Shmot/ Exodus 6:2 – 9:35.

Vaera tells of the first plagues in Egypt, but Pharaoh does not relent.

Greetings from my childhood state of Maryland, where I’ve just concluded  a rabbinic retreat, with learning and reflection on the practice of prayer and the meaning of liturgy- which is a great thing since that’s our theme for this year’s Torah  studies. In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, there’s plenty of prayer on the part of both Moshe and Pharaoh, but the connection to the siddur [prayerbook], is a little more obscure- but it’s  there all right, in both the morning and evening liturgies.

In both the morning [shacharit] and evening [ma’ariv] services, after the recitation of Shma [declaration of Divine unity], there is a paragraph of praise, in which God is extolled for defeating our enemies and bringing Israel to salvation. This paragraph precedes a direct quote from the song at the Sea of Reeds- we’ll get to that in future weeks. For this week, it’s enough to notice some uncomfortable language in our praises:

” . . . . vindicating us with miracles before Pharaoh, with signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt. God smote, in wrath, Egypt’s firstborn, brought Israel to lasting freedom and led them through divided waters as their pursuers sank in the sea. . . . ” (from Siddur Sim Shalom.)

The wording above is from the ma’ariv service but the phrasing in the morning is comparable in theme. Viewed through the lens of a simple theology of God working in history, on our side and against the enemies of Israel, the praises above are clear enough. From another perspective, the words are troubling, for they seem to have a triumphalist tone, celebrating the downfall of an enemy rather than regarding all suffering as tragic. That  is the sensibility of our Passover tradition of taking drops of wine out of the cup in acknowledgment of the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues; one might imagine that the siddur would similarly temper its praise when terrible retributions are mentioned.

Personally, I can’t connect the work of prayer- which is necessarily both a humbling and expansion of the self towards greater compassion- with praises to God for wreaking vengeance on our enemies. So maybe the mention of the “signs and wonders” after the Shma can be understood as a particular image of a general principle: that the God of Israel is found on the side of those who struggle against oppression, with those who suffer and not with their tormentors. From God-consciousness, or faith, arises a sense of moral accountability beyond that which is immediately apparent, and it is that larger moral vision which is the object of our praise.

In other words- I’m not praising God for plagues in Egypt, as such. Leaving aside questions of historical veracity, the mention of the plagues, is, for me, a reminder that faith in God means faith that justice will eventually triumph, even if- to paraphrase Dr. King- the arc of  history takes a long time to bend in that direction. Not only that, but remembering this in my prayer makes it about my own accountability rather than another’s, and in this way, the very act of praying pushes me towards participation in acts of justice rather than acquiescence to Pharaoh. Rather than triumphalism, recalling the Exodus celebrates our experience of God as Liberator, and reminds us each day to make the Exodus real again for all who cry out.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vaera: The Nile is Mine

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Perhaps it’s warming up around here just a bit, but certainly our
haftarah this week is a “hot one.” The prophetic text associated with
the Torah portion Va’era is primarily about Egpyt- or, in Hebrew,
“Mitzrayim,” the “narrow place”- and its eventual downfall. In the
Torah portion, Moshe confronts Pharaoh and demands freedom; in our
haftarah, the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) portrays Egypt as a
treacherous ally that will be punished by God in the days to come.

According to our Etz Hayim commentary, the ancient nation of Israel
tried to make an alliance with Egypt when the Babylonians were
besieging Jerusalem around 586 B.C.E. The prophet scorns those who
would place their trust in evil nations, and regards Mitzrayim as
especially arrogant:

“Thus said the Lord God:
I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt,
Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels,
Who said,
My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)

This latter phrase is repeated a few verses later:

“And they shall know that I am the Lord — because he boasted, ‘The
Nile is mine, and I made it.’ ” (Vs. 9)

Now, we know Egypt did a terrible thing in enslaving the Israelites in
the days of Moshe, but what’s so bad about claiming “the Nile is mine,
I made it? ” Why should the prophet or anybody else care what Pharaoh
thinks about the Nile river?

To me, what’s striking about these lines is the extraordinary
arrogance of Pharaoh- here representing the nation- in believing that
somehow they made, or control, nature itself. In philosophical terms,
this is called anthropocentrism- the belief that humans are the center
of all value. To be clear: I am making no claims about what the
ancient Egyptians actually believed, and even less so does any
discussion of an ancient text bear on the modern country called Egypt.
Rather, we’re looking at what the prophet believed that Egypt
believed, and which, of course, he found highly problematic.

Yet the message of prophet is more relevant than ever: if we, as
individuals or as a society, believe that the natural world exists
only to meet our needs, if we place ourselves above the ecological web
rather than within it, surely it’s only a short step to deciding that
other people exist only to meet our needs as well. Seen this way,
Egypt/ Mitzrayim is not so much a place, but a worldview, one
concerned with power and taking, with human ego at the center of an
ethics of dominance and violence.

That is what the prophet reject: not a group of people, as such, but a
way of thinking; it’s a rejection of egocentric entitlement, which
almost inevitably leads to the question: how can others serve me?
That, in turn, precludes the really important question: how can I
serve others? If I think everything belongs to me, then I use it; if I
think that I’m a steward for others, including future generations,
then I guard and protect the earth and its inhabitants.

Pharaoh sees the world as his for the taking; the prophetic tradition
sees the world and all its relationships as gifts with the opportunity
for caring.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vaera: Attacking the Right Problem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Greeting from (finally) wintry Poughkeepsie! Our Torah portion this
week, Vaera, continues the story of Moshe, Pharaoh, and the plagues.
At first, Moshe isn’t the most confident fellow, but God appoints his
brother Aharon as his spokesman and they go together to demand freedom
for their people- and they bring plagues and wonders when Pharaoh
refuses. One of the more interesting plagues is that of frogs, which
are so many in number they cover the land:

“Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came
up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same with
their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt” (Shmot/
Exodus 8:2-3)

The word for “frog” in Hebrew is “tzfardeah,” which is a collective
noun, like “sheep” or “fish”- it can mean one, or a whole bunch of
them. Thus, when it the Hebrew text says that “hatzfardeah” came up
and covered the land, the perfectly simple meaning is that lots of
frogs came up and hopped around. That being said, our friend Rashi
brings two interpretations to this verse, one of which follows the
simple meaning (that “frog” is a collective noun) and one of which
(from the Talmud) is more imaginative: that “hatzfardeah” [literally,
“the frog”] means one big frog came up out of the Nile, and when the
Egyptians struck it, it split up into many smaller ones.

It’s a special-effects scene that Steven Spielberg should film: a
giant frog (Frogzilla!) slowly emerges from the dark waters, sending
the Egyptians running in panic, until a few soldiers bravely rush the
giant beast, which divides itself into swarms upon swarms. This would
make a great movie scene, but when Rabbi Akiva originally suggested
that “hatzfardeah” meant one frog, the other rabbis teased him for
coming up with a ridiculous suggestion.

So if there is a simple grammatical explanation to the wording, why
would Akiva, and Rashi a thousand years later, suggest an
interpretation which seems so incredible? As silly as our “Frogzilla”
midrash is, it does suggest a certain moral truth: that attacking the
wrong problem only multiplies one’s troubles. After all, the frogs
were only brought upon Egypt as a sign that even Pharaoh was not the
ruler of heaven and earth; it was not the frogs that truly plagued
Egypt, but their own arrogance as a society, which lead them to
enslave the Israelites and benefit from their forced labor.

Thus, suggesting that the Egyptians attacked one giant frog, which
split up into swarms, may be seen as a parable of a society or
organization which is avoiding hard truths: it’s easy to attack an
obvious, external issue (like a giant frog) but unless it’s the real
problem, deep down in the hearts of the people, the difficulties will
only become more diffuse and pervasive.

For example, consider a congregation which blames its problems solely
on the rabbi or pastor, making them the problem, rather than seeking
to fully understand the tensions between conflicting dreams and
desires among the members of the community. Such a congregation can
fire its leader, but that will never solve its problems- only inner
change can do that.

Another example would be a family where one member is named by the
others as the source of its troubles- “if you would only stop [fill in
the blanks], everything would be fine!” Yet families are always
complicated webs of emotion, and no one person is ever fully to blame
for a whole system that’s in trouble.

To put it another way: change comes from within, when people look into
themselves and hold themselves to the highest standards of truth,
compassion, and justice. Seen this way, Rashi’s midrash of the giant
frog is no longer comical, but tragic, representing the human tendency
to see problems as “out there,” rather than “in here,” in the heart,
where t’shuvah, or inner redirection, really happens. One “frog” can
split into many, even to the point of covering the land, when we miss
the deeper source of our troubles. Yet therein lies the hope: that we
need not be like Pharaoh, of hardened heart and closed mind, but can
instead change at anytime- it requires only the gifts of desire and
humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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