Archive for Vaera

Vaera: Identity and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Well, friends, Theo is back with the Red Sox, so I can’t think of a better time to read about signs and wonders! (now, if Theo can put together a team to put a plague on the Yankees, we’re really talkin’ miracles.)

Speaking of signs and wonders, Parshat Vaera begins with God “prepping” Moshe to confront Pharaoh, and ends with the plagues in full force. However, the text has a break in the action, just before the plagues begin, in which we find a family tree for Moshe and Aharon, going all the way back to Levi, the third son of Yaakov.

This genealogy ends with a confirmation of that the Moshe and Aharon who were commissioned by God to free the Israelites are the same Moshe and Aharon who confronted Parsha in Egypt:

“It is the same Aharon and Moshe to whom the Lord said, `Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.’ It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moshe and Aharon. ”
(Shmot/ Exodus 6:26-27)

This genealogical interpolation into the Exodus narrative links the family that came down to Egypt- Yaakov’s sons and their households- with the much larger nation which will
soon leave Egypt. This section of text also puts Moshe, who was raised as an Egyptian prince, firmly into the context of Israelite identity and history- it “proves,”as it were, that he is really an Israelite, and has a right to lead the people.

However, if you’ve been reading these email commentaries for more than a few weeks now, you know that the ancient rabbis look for moral and spiritual meaning in every
sentence of the Torah- this does not cancel out the more direct textual understanding, but adds to it. You also know that any time a word is repeated or used in an unusual way, the rabbis “perk up their ears,” as it were, and investigate what’s going on. In our
passage above, one phrase noticed by Rashi (among others) is the repetition of the phrase “Moshe and Aharon”- if we know it’s the same Moshe and Aharon who were commanded by God, why do we need to know it’s the same guys who confronted Parsha?

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, sees “the same Moshe and Aharon” as a statement about their essential integrity, not their public identity:

“These are the same Moses and Aaron”. . . . They remained in their mission and in their righteousness from beginning to end.

Rashi’s comment takes us from a straightforward family history to an ideal of human self-knowledge and steadfastness in the face of tremendous challenges. After all, Moshe and his brother had been commissioned by God, and were given signs and wonders which
confounded a great empire. It’s entirely possible that lesser people would have become arrogant, or self-important, or lost sight of the ultimate goal, which was not the destruction of Egypt, but the liberation of Israel.

Not every person is called directly by God to confront a tyrant- but each of us has a mission to change the world for the better. Each of us is given a unique responsibility and the task of using our gifts of mind and heart for lifting up the world. Yet it’s not so easy to
remain true to ourselves and our spiritual tasks when the world can push back with all kinds of pressures and distractions.

There is a famous story about Reb Zusya of Hanipol, who said that in Heaven, they wouldn’t ask him about why he wasn’t more like Moshe or Aharon- but why he wasn’t more like Zusya. “These are the same Moshe and Aharon”- they were fully engaged in the
needs of the community, but they retained their essential integrity and sense of a purpose greater than themselves. Nobody is ever going to ask why any of us aren’t more like Moshe- but all of us could stand to ask ourselves how we intend to be fully ourselves and
fully, consistently present in the task of fixing what’s broken, in ourselves and in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link takes you to the text of the parsha and haftarah, and the second leads you to a page where you can find a summary of the parsha and additional commentaries:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/vaera.shtml

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/vaera_index.htm

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Vaera 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaEra (Ex. 6:2-9:35)

OVERVIEW

The previous parasha ends with the Israelites suffering greatly in servitude to Pharoah; rather than heed God’s instruction to let his slaves go, Pharoah increases their workload and even refuses to give them straw for the bricks they must make. Moshe goes back to God, and in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God reassures him that the Israelites will indeed be delivered by God’s own action. The plagues upon Egypt then commence, but Pharoah will not be moved. Eventually, God “hardens” Pharoah’s heart, and the plagues upon Egypt continue, becoming more wondrous each time.

IN FOCUS

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. . . .’ “

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. ” (Exodus 6:6-9, abridged)

PSHAT

After Pharoah increases the people’s workloads, the people complain to Moshe and Aharon that they’ve only made problems worse by speaking of liberation and freedom. (Cf. Exodus 5). So Moshe makes a poignant complaint to God, voicing his despair. God then reassures Moshe that indeed, this is the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and that the people will be liberated and brought to freedom. Moshe tries to bring hope to the people, but they were too discouraged to hear it.

DRASH

We have quoted the New International Version above; the Jewish Publication Society translation is a little different:

    but when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

The contemporary Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Exodus which accompanies the JPS translation, points out that “discouragement” or “crushed spirits” is not a literal translation of the phrase kotzer ruach. [In modern Hebrew, the phrase ‘kotzer ruach’ today means ‘impatience.’- ed.]

    their spirits crushed. . .Literally, “from shortness of spirit.” Hebrew ruach is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will. Failure to energize the people must not deter Moses from persevering in his mission.

Rashi compares “shortness of spirit” to shortness of breath (the words are related)- you get the sense of the people oppressed spiritually as well as physically.

Sarna seems to be implying that the people could not have heard Moshe’s message of hope, even if they had wanted to. Suffering under Pharoah’s abuses, they had no will, no imagination, no ability to conceive of a different reality. This, to me, is the lowest point of the story; not only has Pharoah tried to crush the people physically, he’s robbed them of hope.

So what does God do? God sends Moshe and Aharon right back to Pharoah, continuing the confrontation. Perhaps the message here is that physical liberation must be accompanied by a reawakening of the imagination. Each encounter with Pharoah brings him down a little bit, making him a little more human and a little less invincible. Giving the people ruach, or spiritual energy, is not something that could happen all at once, but is built up with each victory.

For us, I see a clear implication: when you meet someone who is kotzer ruach, or “short of spirit,” don’t let their initial inability to hear encouragement discourage you. If you can, show them that a different reality is possible, that the roadblocks, like Pharoah, are not invincible. You might have to try ten times, like Moshe did, or even more, but it’s worth it- a sense of hope might be the most precious thing you can give another person.

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Vaera 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The previous parasha ends with the Israelites suffering greatly in servitude to Pharoah; rather than heed God’s instruction to let his slaves go, Pharoah increases their workload and even refuses to give them straw for the bricks they must make. Moshe goes back to God, and in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God reassures him that the Israelites will indeed be delivered by God’s own action. The plagues upon Egypt then commence, but Pharoah will not be moved. Eventually, God “hardens” Pharoah’s heart, and the plagues upon Egypt continue, becoming more wondrous each time.

IN FOCUS
“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Go and tell Pharoah king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moshe appealed to the Lord, saying: ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharoah heed me- a man of impeded speech!'” So the Lord spoke to both Moshe and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharoah king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.
(Exodus 6:10-13)

PSHAT
Moshe complains to God several times before this that God’s mission for him- to proclaim to Pharoah that he must free the Hebrew slaves- is impossible, or too difficult, or that Moshe is the wrong man for the job. Moshe seems not only to doubt his own capabilities but he also comes across as a bit jaded about human nature: he points out that a slave people isn’t likely to believe the wild reports of a wandering shepherd regarding their redemption, and Pharoah is even less likely to heed seditious suggestions in the name of an unknown God. In this verse, as before, Moshe protests that he is not a fluent speaker; it’s not clear whether this means that he had a physical speech defect, or was self-conscious and inarticulate. (Cf. 4:10.)

DRASH
Digging a bit deeper into the question of Moshe’s “impeded speech,” we find that even explanations of the term fudge a bit as to whether it is a physiological or emotional problem. In this verse, quoted above, the literal translation of Moshe’s complaint is that he has “uncircumcised lips,” which doesn’t help us at all. Rashi says that “uncircumcised” means “closed,” or “stopped up,” and gives several examples from other verses to corroborate this definition. However, he doesn’t say what it actually means to have “closed” lips- it could be a kind of thickness of speech, or it could mean that his words don’t flow very well, that he has inadequate rhetorical skills.

Moshe makes his complaint a bit differently in the earlier verse referred to: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, not yesterday and not from the day before, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (4:11) Kaved in this verse literally means “heavy,” and is sometimes also translated as “slow of mouth and slow of tongue,” or something like that. Once again, it’s not clear exactly what Moshe means; the only thing that’s clear is that Moshe thinks this condition disqualifies him from being God’s agent in the task of confronting Pharoah.

Nachum Sarna, a Biblical scholar, in his book Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, offers a third possibility. Moshe grew up as an Egyptian, speaking the language of the land- perhaps he’s trying to tell God that after so many years in the land of Midian, his fluency in Egyptian isn’t what it used to be. Thus, he doesn’t possess the language skills to engage in this task of high-level communication and negotiation.

After looking at the various interpretations of what Moshe’s protests, Sarna does something unusual for a Bible scholar (whether of the old-time rabbinic variety or of the modern academic persuasion): he tells us that the exact nature of Moshe’s problem really doesn’t matter at all. Moshe felt inadequate to address Pharoah as God’s agent; God replies that it’s God’s words, not Moshe’s, that will be spoken. To quote Sarna:

    To this, God replies with what in effect is . . the essence of Biblical prophecy. The chosen messenger conveys not his own word but the word of God, and he does so because he irresistibly compelled by a Force and a Will more powerful than his own. Prophetic eloquence is not a matter of native talent, but of revelation that derives from the supreme Source of truth that is external to the speaker. The facile talker, the golden-tongued, the consummate demagogue, is not the recipient of the prophetic word or the vehicle of its transmission. Prophetic eloquence is a divine gift bestowed for [a] purpose on him who is elected, often against his will, to be the messenger. In these circumstances, experience and talent are irrelevant qualities.

To me, this explanation of Moshe’s protests is reassuring and discomforting at the same time. It’s reassuring because we can take from it hope that indeed, despite our human limitations and frailties, we can accomplish our unique tasks in life. To be sure, most of us don’t have a destiny as dramatic as Moshe’s, but each of us is commissioned for <something,> and given tools and talents and challenges to meet as best we can. Moshe, despite his absolutely extraordinary life, is also just like all the rest of us: called by God to be a partner in the work of Redemption, called by a God Who has faith in us even when we don’t have faith in ourselves. It’s reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful, but implanted Divine Truth into a person “slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” If Moshe could rise to the occasion and speak words to Pharoah that would change the whole course of human history, then I too can rise to the occasion and express to the world whatever sparks of Divinity I have been given.

Yet this is exactly what is discomforting about these verses: they strip from us all our excuses, all our rationales for procrastination, all our lack of self-confidence masquerading as humility. By appointing Moshe, the man of “uncircumcised lips,” as a prophet-president-diplomat-preacher (i.e., a man completely dependent on words), God is telling the rest of us: you have to get on with your spiritual mission in life, despite your limitations, despite your self-doubts, despite all the problems that seem to be in the way. It’s much easier to shrug off the task as beyond our capacities, or to wish fervently, as Moshe did, that God would appoint someone else in our place. Not everyone is chosen to lead a nation of slaves to freedom, but each of us must consider seriously and apply to ourselves Rabbi Tarfon’s famous challenge: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)

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