Archive | January, 2016

Commentary for Beshalach

27 Jan

This week’s parshah contains many famous biblical stories, but the most famous of which is the crossing of the Red Sea. The crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most important events in Jewish history, and is referred to many times throughout our prayer services. The most detailed of these is in the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1- 18, which we recite daily at the end of the introductory P’seukei D’zimrah section of our service.


It is interesting to consider exactly why this event has become so prominent in our history. Obviously it’s a big, fancy miracle in which God’s great might is put on full display, showing God’s unmatched command of nature being used to save the Israelites from certain doom and destroy the mighty Egyptian army, but that sort of thing happens plenty of other times, too. The ten plagues, for example, would seem to be even more impressive, as that was God performing ten different miracles instead of just one. The book of Joshua contains stories of many miracles that helped the Israelites crush their foes in battle. So why is this moment so special?


Before we recite the Song of the Sea in our daily prayers, we first introduce it with the two verses that immediately precede it in the Torah: “On that day The Lord saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great hand that The Lord inflicted upon Egypt, and the nation revered The Lord and they had faith in The Lord and Moses His servant (Ex 14:30-31).” While these verses serve as a nice introduction, they also contain a more important message. For the first verse and a half, the Israelites are referred to in the singular form “Israel,” and the verbs in Hebrew are all written in the singular form. Then, in the middle of Ex. 14:31, the text switches, referring to the Israelites as “the nation,” with plural verb forms: “[they] revered,” “they had faith.”


Many midrashim (most prominently the Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael) tell stories of dissension within the Israelite camp at this time. Some wanted to go back to Egypt, some wanted to just drown themselves in the sea. Some wanted to try to fight the Egyptians. Some had faith that God would save them with another miracle, while others had no faith in God at all. Everyone had his or her own opinion about what they should do. After the crossing of the Red Sea, though, as everyone saw with his or her own eyes how God had once again saved them from the Egyptians, they all became believers who trusted not only in God, but also that Moses was carrying out God’s instructions correctly. The first person to refer to the Israelites as a “nation” is not an Israelite, but rather it is Pharaoh, way back in Exodus 1:9, but it is only now, after crossing the Red Sea, that the Israelites themselves have truly become a unified people. They entered the Red Sea as individual descendents of our forefather Israel, but they set out from there all as Israelites.


Commentary for Bo

18 Jan

This week’s parshah picks up where last week’s left off, with the final three of the ten plagues. First locusts, then darkness, but Pharaoh will not release the Israelites from slavery. Then Moses announces the slaying of the firstborn, and still Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go. God follows through on the threat, and at midnight on the fourteen of Nissan, God smote every Egyptian firstborn, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, and even the firstborn of the cattle which the Egyptians worshipped as gods, and finally Pharaoh agreed to set the Israelites free.


The parshah then continues by giving us various mitzvot related to the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. The institution of Passover as an annual holiday, it’s various associated dietary restrictions, instructions for how to eat the paschal sacrifice, and the commandment to teach the story of our redemption from slavery to future generations are all found here. We are even commanded to put a passage regarding the exodus in our tefillin to remind us of the exodus even on days where we don’t remind ourselves of it by saying Kiddush.


Also included in this bunch is the mitzvah of redemption of the firstborn. The firstborn of all cattle is to be given over to God. If it is not given to God, it must be killed. It may be exchanged to the priest for a donkey (a much less useful animal since it is not kosher and thus neither its meat or milk can be used), but no matter what happens, its human owners will get no use of the animal. Additionally, every male Israelite who emerges from the womb and is his mother’s first child is also considered to be given over in service to God as a priest, and must be redeemed by his parents for a monetary price.


This mitzvah, dealing with the two categories of beings that were struck down in the tenth plague, teaches us how we are different from Pharaoh. While both we and the Egyptians use cattle in our worship, we Jews are not willing to sacrifice our children. While the Egyptians were willing to sacrifice their own children in order to not give up having his Israelite slaves (one midrash even portrays the Egyptian firstborn rebelling upon hearing Pharaoh’s decision, leading to a civil war), we Jews are willing to make sacrifices for our children. When it comes to our children, we are taught not to make decisions base don our own greed as Pharaoh does, but based on our love for them.

Commentary for Va’era

13 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the beginning of the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, including the first seven of the ten plagues. Most curious among these is the second plague: frogs. Pestilence and disease striking down human and animal alike, legions of bugs crawling everywhere and getting all over and into everyone and everything, rivers turning to blood, giant flaming chunks of hail raining down from the sky: these are the sorts of things we picture when we think about a wrathful God smiting people in furious anger. Deadly wild beasts roaming around unfettered, making it unsafe to go outside doesn’t have the same powerful visual to it, but at least that is something that we still understand as undeniably dangerous. But frogs? Sure, it’d be really, really, really annoying to have frogs everywhere, jumping around the bedroom and the kitchen, but it seems like the sort of thing you would almost get used to after a while. No worse than being forced to go camping by a lake against your will, except that you’d still get the everyday conveniences and protections of home instead of living in a tent. So why in the world would God choose to punish the Egyptians with frogs?

After the first plague, Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go, so Moses warned him that if he didn’t, there would be a plague of frogs coming up from the Nile. Pharaoh doesn’t let the Israelites go, so God tells Moses to tell Aaron to go start the plague. It is interesting to note that while all of the instances where the plague is described, either as it is happening or in a warning beforehand, the plural word “tzefarde’im”- “frogs” is used, but in Ex. 8:2, when Aaron initiates the plague by holding his arm out over the water, the singular form, “tzefarde’ah” is used. Most translations understand this as referring to the infestation of frogs itself rather than the number of frogs, so the use of the singular makes sense, but in an extremely literal reading of the text, only one frog emerges from the Nile. The Talmud takes this view, saying that the plague started with just one frog, and debates what that frog did (either reproduce or call to others) to make the infestation grow (Sanhedrin 67b). A further midrash states that this first original frog was actually a gigantic frog, and Rashi says that the Egyptians immediately tried to club it to death, but rather than hurting it, each blow the Egyptians landed simply made more frogs spring forth from it.

The parshah continues by showing us the response of Pharaoh’s magicians. Just as with the first plague, the magicians set out to prove that they were equal to God by summoning frogs of their own, which they did.

Pharaoh eventually summons Moses and agrees to let the Israelites go in exchange for Moses making the frogs go away. This leads to an interesting exchange between the two. Moses tells Pharaoh to pick a time that he would like the frogs to go away, and Pharaoh says “tomorrow.” Ramban points out that if the frogs were bothering him so much, it seems strange that Pharaoh would be willing to wait another day for them to go away instead of just asking for them to go away right now. Ramban explains this by exploring one possible motive for Pharaoh’s odd decision. Ramban says that Pharaoh believed Moses to merely be a sorcerer or an astrologer instead of a servant of God, and figured that Moses had already divined that the frogs would go away that day and thus gave Pharaoh the choice, assuming that Pharaoh would say “make them go away now” and they would start going away and Moses would use this as evidence of his own power. Thinking he had figured Moses out, Pharaoh tried to outsmart him, Pharaoh choosing for the frogs to go away tomorrow instead, reasoning that the frogs would go away today anyway, and thus Moses would be exposed as a fraud.

Going back to the giant frog, Oznayim LaTorah comments that it was intended as one last warning to Pharaoh to rethink his decision to not let the Israelites go by showing that God was clearly capable of following through on the threat of this next plague. Pharaoh does not heed the warning and refuses to acknowledge God’s power, and thus he and the Egyptians are struck by the plague.

It is interesting to note that every action taken by the Egyptians only serves to make the plague worse. They ignore God’s warning and attack the giant frog instead of urging Pharaoh to submit to God’s will and free the Israelites, creating more frogs each time they hit it. Pharaoh’s magicians attempt to demonstrate their own power not my making the frogs go away, but by summoning even more frogs, which only makes the situation worse. Pharaoh, in his attempt to outsmart Moses, makes the plague last longer than was necessary.

The Egyptian solutions to the plague of frogs were focused on the symptoms rather than the actual problem. The only reason the frogs were there was because they would not acknowledge God’s will and let the Israelites go free. Instead, they focused their efforts on trying to deny God’s power, either by trying to destroy God’s supernatural creation, by trying to prove themselves to be equal to God, or by trying to expose Moses as a trickster and therefore deny that God had any power at all. And in the end, after the frogs had gone away, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and reneged on his promise to let the Israelites go, ensuring that Egypt would endure yet another plague. Over and over and over until Pharaoh finally understood the real problem. The plague of frogs was sent to try teach the Egyptians what the real problem they were facing was. The key to permanently solving a problem is not to lash out at the results as the Egyptians did, but to do as we try to do on the High Holidays and identify the root causes and work to correct them.