Archive | January, 2015

Commentary for Bo

26 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the final three of the ten plagues that God brings against the Egyptians. While they seem like a minor point when compared to the plagues themselves and their place in the exodus, there are many important things we can learn by studying the nuances of the narratives of the individual plagues and by comparing them to each other. Sometimes Pharaoh is warned before a plague; sometimes he is not. While some of the plagues start simply when God causes some miraculous thing to happen, there are other plagues where God waits for Moses to take a specific, predetermined action before bringing on the plague. Sometimes it is Aaron performing the action instead of Moses, and for the sixth plague, it is both of them together. Some of the plagues affect all of Egypt, while others are specifically stated to not affect Goshen, where the Israelites live.

Of this last category, the ninth plague, darkness, is a little bit different than the others. There were five plagues that did not strike the Israelites or their flocks (wild beasts, cattle disease, hail, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn). The tenth plague targeted the Egyptians as well as any Israelites who did not heed Moses’ instructions in chapter twelve. The fourth and seventh plagues are specifically said to have spared “the land of Goshen, where My people stand/where the Israelites were (Ex. 8:18/9:26),” and the fourth and fifth plague both mention that God is sparing the Israelites’ land and livestock to show that these are not natural occurrences, but rather Divinely directed acts of punishments of the Egyptians.

The ninth plague, however, only states that “but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings (Ex. 10:23).” It does not mention a Divine motive to show that the darkness was not natural phenomenon because three straight days of darkness darker than the average night is clearly not a natural phenomenon. It similarly does not mention Goshen itself being spared, but just the Israelite dwellings, implying that outside in Goshen, the plague still struck. If plague still struck Goshen and there is no mention of God specifically sparing the Israelites to show a differentiation between them and the Egyptians, why were the Israelite dwellings unaffected by the plague?

Many modern commentators have used the description of the darkness so thick that no Egyptian could “stand up from where was (10:23)” to infer that the darkness brought on a depression-induced lethargy in the Egyptians, an idea which fits in well with Midrash Rabbah’s comparison of the darkness in Egypt with Job’s description of his depression as “a land whose light is darkness; all gloom and disarray, whose light is like darkness (Job 10:22).” Other commentators have seized upon the description of a darkness so thick that “no man could see his brother (Ex. 10:23),” to explain the darkness as a physical representation of the Egyptians spiritual state.

One of the curses Moses warns the Israelites that they will suffer if they reject God is that they will “grope around at noon as a blind man gropes in the darkness… and there will be no savior (Deut 28:29).” Rabbi Yosi asks why the words “in the dark” were included, as the amount of light outside does not affect how well a blind man can see. He then answers his own question, explaining that in the daylight others will be able to help the blind man around, but in the darkness they are just as blind as he is and will not be able to help (Megilah 24b).

Towards the end, as Pharaoh begins to realize God’s power, he starts trying to negotiate with Moses. One time he proposes that he will let the Israelite men go, but that the women must stay. Another time he suggests that the adults be let go, but the children remain behind. Both of these offers are quickly rejected. Each and every Israelite is part of the nation, and none of them will have their freedom come at the expense of any of the others. Even their animals must be allowed to leave Egypt with them. The Israelites had suffered through generations of slavery together, and they would all leave together.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were not willing to stick up for each other. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent. Even when the lives of their children hung in the balance, they were concerned only with themselves.

The Talmud defines the time that it is halachicly light enough to see as “when one can recognize the face of a friend (Berachot 9b).” The Israelites have light during the ninth plague because of the support and friendship they showed each other, while the Egyptians sat mired in depression and darkness because none of them were willing to see each other as friends in need, and thus unwilling to be the savior of Deut. 28:29 and help each other through the darkness.

Commentary for Va’eira

16 Jan

In this week’s parshah we meet perhaps the most out of place characters in the entire Torah: the Chartumim. Often translated as either “magicians” or “advisors,” these characters are strange because whereas later servants of foreign gods are often exposed by God’s prophets as nothing but tricksters, a basic reading of the text of our parshah seem to imply allow that the Chartumim actually do have supernatural powers with which they confront and attempt to discredit Moses and Aaron- and by extension, God. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that the text specifically talks about the Chartumim using “spells” to do what Moses and Aaron did effortlessly as proof that the Chartumim were merely creating illusions like modern magicians do (and many midrashim have been created to give examples of this), but whether or not that is the case is not a major theological issue because their power, whether supernatural or mere illusion, is shown to be completely outclassed by God’s at every turn.


It is, however, interesting to examine the way that the Chartumim choose to use their “powers.” After the first plague, when the Nile River and all other bodies of water in Egypt and all water drawn from them, even water already taken out of them at the time, is turned to blood, the Chartumim respond by also supposedly turning water into blood. Similarly, when the second plague comes, the Chartumim respond by seemingly producing frogs of their own. What good does that do? Now there is even less water to drink, and there are even more pesky frogs hopping around. All they have succeeded in doing is making the problem worse. Each time the Chartumim are able to replicate the plagues, it reinforces Pharaoh’s belief in his own superiority over God, giving him more reason to refuse to let the Israelites go.


When the third plague comes, the Chartumim also try to bring forth lice, which would once again only exacerbate the problem. Unlike the first two plagues, the Chartumim fail at imitating the miracle and declare the superiority of God’s power. By this point, though, the damage has been done, and Pharaoh is now so certain of his own superiority that he refuses to listen to even his own advisors, and refuses to let the Israelites go.


The final time that the Chartumim are mentioned is during the sixth plague, when the Torah notes that they were so afflicted with boils that they could not even appear to confront Moses. Interestingly, there is a seeming discrepancy in the Torah about the curability of these boils. When Moses is warning the people of the consequences of rejecting God, one of the punishments he warns them that God will send is “the boils of Egypt… of which you cannot be cured (Deut. 28:27).” In the Exodus story, though, the text (in 9:15-16) is clear that God ends the plague and cures all of the boils. There is a midrash which explains that the incurable boils mentioned in Deuteronomy were a punishment for the Chartumim alone, and unlike the rest of the Egyptians, God did not cure their boils at the end of the plague (which would also explain why the Chartumim don’t show up again).


The sin that Moses is warning the Israelites against in Deuteronomy is the sin of believing that you know better than God does or that you will be able to take whatever punishment God can throw at you and just walk it off because you are more powerful than God. These are transgressions born out of excessive pride and arrogance, two qualities exemplified by the Chartumim.


Whether they were real magicians or merely tricksters, the fact remains that the Chartumim had a position of influence, authority, and responsibility in Egypt. If they were real magicians, then they ignored their responsibility to Egypt by attempting to replicate the plagues. They wanted to prove that they were greater than God, and only took actions to make the situation worse rather than trying to reverse the plagues and make the situation better. If they had no real power, then the only purpose of their facade of being able to replicate the plagues is to save their own standing before Pharaoh, which only resulted in encouraging Pharaoh’s own arrogance, which eventually lead Egypt to ruin. Had they given Pharaoh honest counsel from the beginning, perhaps at least some of Egypt’s suffering could have been averted.

Commentary for Shemot

11 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the famous story of God calling to Moses at the burning bush. God calls out to Moses by repeating his name twice (Ex. 3:4). The only other person in the entire Torah to whom God calls out in this way is Jacob (Gen. 46:2). While both men respond to God’s calling by saying “here I am,” the similarities between the two episodes end there.


When God calls out to Jacob, it is in response to Jacob offering a sacrifice. After Jacob responds “here I am,” God goes on to tell Jacob that the sojourn his family is about to take down to Egypt will be the very trip which results in the hundreds of years of oppression that were foretold when God made the Covenant Between the Parts with Abraham in Gen. 15. Despite knowing that he is about to take actions that will lead his descendants into generations of slavery, Jacob marches on, confident that he is making the right choice because of the Divine promise that God will always remain with them and will eventually bring them back to inherit the Promised Land.


With Moses, on the other hand, God comes to him completely out of the blue as he is going about his day herding sheep. God tells Moses that he has been chosen to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, but Moses balks and asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 3:11)?” When God promises Moses the same reassurance of Divine protection that was promised to Jacob, Moses still balks. Even when God lays out a step-by-step plan for how to liberate the Israelites, Moses still spends the first half of the next chapter questioning just about every part of God’s plan. After God performs not one but two miracles for Moses, Moses concedes that God’s plan will work, but immediately starts asking God to find someone else to do it in his place.


It is interesting to note that Jacob, when being asked to do something that will doom his family to generations of oppressions, goes along with God’s wishes with no complaint, only needing Divine reassurance that things will turn out well in the end, while Moses, being asked to end the slavery and oppression of his people and lead them into the Promised Land, repeatedly balks at the idea and tries to make excuses for why the plan won’t work, despite being shown a more detailed plan and more Divine power than Jacob was. This is because of the backgrounds of the two men. God had been an important part of Jacob’s life since he was a child. His parents raised him to believe in God and Jacob had spent his whole life developing his own intimate relationship with God. Moses, on the other hand, was at a point in his life where his relationship with God was just starting to form. Thus, even when he is being asked to do something that will cause suffering to his descendents, Jacob does not hesitate because he knows God will be with him and with his descendents, and will redeem them, while Moses, when asked to perform a task that, while challenging, will help hundreds of thousands of people, hesitates and tries to find reasons not to do so, despite having been assured Divine aid. As we seek to develop our relationship with God, it is important to remember that the first steps are always the hardest, but the more we press on down God’s path, the easier establishing that relationship becomes.

Commentary for Vayechi

2 Jan

One year Rabbi Aharon of Karlin went to the bimah to start leading the morning service on Rosh Hashanah, but as he uttered the very first word, ha’melech (“the king”) he fainted. He would later explain that as he said the word, he had thought of the famous Talmudic story (Gittin 56) of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, whose disciples smuggled him out of Jerusalem during the Roman siege so that he could meet with the Roman general Vespasian. When Rabbi Yochanan saw Vespasian, he addressed him as if he were the emperor himself. Vespasian responded by informing Rabbi Yochanan that he was now deserved to be put to death, either because he had called Vespasian the emperor when he was not one, or because “if I am a king (and you already knew this) why did you not come to me earlier?” “’When I thought of that,’ Rabbi Aharon said, ‘I was terrified. Since I know that God is the One and Only King, why did I not come to him sooner in sincere repentance?’ (Art Scroll Machzor Yichron Yosef, p. 321)”


In this week’s parshah we see an opposite but equally important episode, as Joseph’s brothers finally apologize to him for selling him into slavery. The brothers and their families (along with Joseph and his family) have been living together in Egypt for seventeen years now, on land given to them by Joseph after he saved them from starvation… and yet in all this time they have not once apologized to him. Despite having had many years to stew about what his brothers had done to him, Joseph accepts their apology without hesitation.


Although we mark the High Holiday season on our calendars the “time of repentance,” repentance can be achieved at any time. There is no reason to wait until the High Holidays to rectify our misdeeds, and the Holidays are not a deadline that all sins must be atoned for by or else they become irreparable. We should strive to repent for our sins every day of the year, whether they were sins we committed days ago or years ago.