Tag Archives: Va’era

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.

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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.