file Musings on Parshas Va’eira

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10 months 3 days ago #811 by Heshy Berenholz
Musings on Parshas Va’eira was created by Heshy Berenholz

This is dedicated to the memory of my wife’s cousin Rosette Schoenberger (nee Hornik), on her third Yahrzeit. Rosette, an only child, was born with juvenile diabetes. Her parents struggled to survive during the horror of the Holocaust by posing as non-Jews; by staying ahead of frequent raids by the Gestapo; and by somehow managing to get their daughter the life-saving insulin she needed to inject herself with every day. When she came to the United States and married, the untimely death of her husband left her having to bring up their three young children alone. She was blessed with a fiercely independent personality; a sharp mind; a good heart and a caring soul—and successfully raised them to be productive and caring adults. She was a welcoming mentor for a support group for diabetics. In her later years, she learned to use a computer to surf the internet and to involve herself in social media. She is survived by her daughter, Helen Schoenberger Luger of Israel, and by her two sons Harry and David, all of whom cared for her in the closing years of her life. May her memory be a blessing for all of us.


 Promise of Redemption
 Israelites are unable to believe because their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage
 Eighty-year-old Moshe once again resists God’s command to speak to Pharaoh, explaining that his lack of self-confidence (speech impediment) makes him ineffective
 Moshe’s 83-year-old brother Aharon is sent along to do the talking
 Genealogy of Moshe and Aharon
 Aharon turns a staff into a crocodile for Pharaoh, who remains unimpressed, because his Egyptian wizards, magicians and sorcerers can create the illusion of converting staffs into snakes
 The first seven plagues (each believed to have lasted a week):
 Water turns into blood
 Invasion of frogs
 Infestation of lice (gnats, fleas) causing severe itching
 Swarms of harmful creatures (mixture of beetles or of wild animals)
 Epidemic of fatal animal disease
 Skin boils or rashes
 Hail of ice and fire mixture

The “Names” of God

The Parsha opens with God identifying Himself to Moshe as “I Am Y-H-V-H” and informing him that “I revealed Myself to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaddai, and did not allow them to know Me by my name Y-H-V-H”. God introduced Himself to Avraham and Yaakov with the identifying statement “I am El Shaddai”:

• The Midrash sees this divine Name as referring to God Who has said to His world “it is enough” [sh = that is; dai = enough] meaning, according to Rav Sadya Gaon, that He provides the world with enough of its needs.

• Ibn Ezra considers the name to be an adjective that describes His actions rather than identifying His name

• Ramban’s view is that events in our lives that we take for granted are miracles, but hidden. “El Shaddai” is the God who manages the world in such a way that the miraculous appears to be the ordinary

• Professor Umberto Cassuto thinks “El Shaddai” defines God as the source of fertility in the world, something the Patriarchs observed and experienced. “Y-H-V-H” defines Him as the fulfiller of promises. The Patriarchs were assured of a land and a nation/offspring, but never experienced the realization of these promises

• Rabbi David Fohrman explains that “El Shaddai” relates to the very precise limitations on the dangerous forces of the cataclysmic explosion at creation of the universe, when time and matter came into being. In managing these forces, God prevented their getting out of control and becoming destructive by dictating the point at which “it is enough”.

The Tetragrammaton Name (which is prohibited from being pronounced) —yud and hay and vav and hay—represents God’s utter transcendence (Kuzari) and His creative forces that will continue to sustain the universe (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan). The name was known to the Patriarchs, but not its inner significance, including God as a fulfiller of His promises. The Patriarchs were given assurances that a new nation would be born from them but were not told anything about the beauty and richness of the land that they would inherit. Furthermore, they did not live to see the fulfillment of these promises.

Both Miriam Herman and Yehuda Valladares note that the Patriarchs, because of their generally exemplary behavior, never needed to experience the Tetragrammaton Name which refers to His mercy and willingness to overlook one’s sinful behavior.

The nature of Man’s relationship with God changed over time. The Patriarchs’ faith was pure and unquestioning. They never asked for nor had any need for public miracles to prove God. But for the skeptical Israelites in Egypt it was essential to define and to demonstrate God’s Essence--His Existence, His Involvement and His Omnipotence.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that one needs God’s assistance to become truly and totally dedicated to Him “…it is only through the revelation of Y-H-V-H—a name which represents God as He transcends all limits—is it possible for a person to become truly committed to God, beyond the limits of his own personal agenda.”

The Purpose of the Plagues

As the confrontation between God and Pharaoh begins in earnest, there is the need for this series of devastating events to…

• Punish the Egyptian pantheon
• Demonstrate God’s infinite power and constant presence
• Educate both the Hebrews and the Egyptians about God’s Control of Nature

Abraham Shalom Yahudah (1877-1951), a Biblical scholar (cited by Rabbi B.S. Jacobson) who studied the language of the Torah and its relation to Egyptian society, provides archaeological evidence to support the thesis that the plagues were a “provocative punishment of the Egyptian pantheon”.

1. The Nile was the foundation of the Egyptian society (its agricultural economy was dependent upon irrigation) and, as such, was venerated as a major deity. Moreover, Pharaoh viewed himself as a deity (“the son of god, his own bones and flesh”). Turning the Nile into blood not only crippled the economy, but also demonstrated the failure of the Egyptian deity in the presence of God, the Creator and Master of the universe.

2. Frogs were considered to have life-giving powers in Egyptian mythology. The image of woman with a frog head represented the fertility goddess whose function it was to protect midwives. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill Israelite male babies. The frog/Egyptian deity that was a symbol of fertility and blessing turns into a widespread, dreadful affliction emerging from the Nile. God turns loose the “life-giving” frogs to become a destructive force.

3. Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to reproduce plague number three(lice/vermin), exclaiming to Pharaoh that “This is the finger of God”. This idiomatic expression connotes total helplessness in the face of an invisible dreaded enemy. It is derived from a myth in which an Egyptian deity thwarted the plans of an enemy by dressing up as a hog, sneaking up on the enemy and scratching out one of his eyes with his finger without the victim realizing what happened.

Vermin were prevalent in Egypt, but Priests shaved their entire bodies to protect against contamination. Now, however, all precautions failed, and these religious leaders were reduced to the same status as commoners. They were appalled by their inability to remain protected and realized that their so-called special status would not save them from the dreaded plagues. They were filled with dread as they suffered through the subsequent plagues like everyone else.

In addition to punishing Pharaoh and his people for their cruelty to the Israelites, the plagues fulfilled the Divine promise that “…against all of the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.”

Abravanel thinks that the plagues served to undermine the fundamental religious beliefs of the Egyptians…

 The first group of three plagues was designed to establish God as the Prime Cause and Creator of the Universe
 The second set was to demonstrate His involvement in worldly events and His role as Protector of Israel
 The third set was to show His Omnipotence and the inability of any force to succeed against Him.

Structure of the Ten Plagues

Rabbi Günter Plaut sees the plagues as “a rising tide designed both to punish and to instruct” in a pattern of increasing intensity. It …

 Starts with inconvenience and nuisance (scarce drinking water and the stench of dead fish when the Nile turned to blood; frogs running wild)

 Ratchets up to bodily discomfort and attacks on person and property

 Culminates in the most horrible…
• Terror of darkness (solitary confinement)
• Death of the firstborn

Rabbi Plaut also divides the plagues into five groups of two each:

 Nile River-related (blood and frogs)
 Vermin and insects
 Pestilence and boils (attacks on person)
 Hail and locust (both directed at crops)
 Darkness and death

More familiar to us is the division in the Midrash that is cited in the Haggadah: “Rabbi Yehudah would list the initials of the plague in acrostic abbreviation:

 Detzasch (Dam; TZvardaia, Kinim)
 Adash (Arov; Dever; SHechin)
 Be’achav (Barad, Arbe, Chosech, macas Bicoros)”

The tenth plague is in a class by itself; it is the climactic event that leads to Israel’s liberation. The punishment of the firstborn is the payback for the cruel treatment of the Israelites, God’s “firstborn” (“Israel is my son; my firstborn…let my son go so that he may serve me…I will slay thy son, thy firstborn”).

The three units of plagues have an internal framework:

 In the first of each grouping Moshe announces the plague to Pharaoh in the morning on the banks of the Nile River. (Pharaoh exalted himself as master of the Nile Deity. Some suggest he was there to inspect the Nile River to determine its level and the quality of the water, since the Nile was so critical to Egypt’s agricultural economy.)

 The first two plagues in each unit come with a warning, unlike…

 The third one which does not

 Unlike the first two of the set, which merely caused discomfort, the third plague of each caused bodily harm.
Did Pharaoh Have Free Choice?

When God selected Moshe and Aharon to demand of Pharaoh that he free the Israelites, He told them “I will harden (akshe) Pharaoh’s heart [i.e., make him obstinate], that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt”. This Divine statement may be the Torah’s way of telling us that at some point in the future-- after his multiple refusals to free the Israelites, despite the enormous pain that will have been inflicted on him-- Pharaoh’s harshness will have been so deeply ingrained that he will be emotionally unable to change his behavior. This real-life personality dynamic is euphemistically communicated by the phrase “I [God] will harden his heart” because personality changes derive from God and how He created our psychological makeup.

After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh elects to remain resolute in his refusal to free the Israelites. It is only starting with plague six that the text states that it was God who “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. The more one behaves improperly, the greater concentration of Evil builds within to a point where one no longer can change for the better (i.e., the choice of how to act no longer exists).

Rambam maintains that free will and the opportunity to do t’shuva can be taken away from those whose sins are grave enough. This was Pharaoh’s state--a situation that he brought upon himself by his own behavior. [Did Hitler have the capacity to repent?]

Sforno (Italy,1475–1550) presents an alternative view, arguing that ironically the hardening of the heart is the only means to ensure and enhance free will: Had Pharaoh's heart not been hardened, he would have let the Israelites go, but only because he was forced to because he could not bear the suffering of the plagues. So, God gave him the inner strength and stubbornness to enable him to endure the plagues and to not be coerced into letting the Israelites go. God wanted Pharaoh to choose, of his own free will, to sincerely repent; to submit to the Divine Will and to acknowledge His Greatness and Goodness.

Building on this concept, Rabbi Fohrman focuses our attention on the various Hebrew words that are employed in the text to communicate Pharaoh’s resistance and/or his change of mind. The root word kavayd means hard/heavy and communicates heavy-with-stubbornness (negative connotation). It appears in the plague narrative ten times—five referring to the plagues themselves and five describing Pharaoh’s heart.

The root word chazak means strong/strength and communicates courage (positive). During the first five plagues Pharaoh, had enough internal fortitude and strength to, on his own, defy God and His wishes that the Israelites be set free to worship Him in the wilderness. So, the Torah states that he, Pharaoh, “hardened his heart” (i.e., withstood God on his own). But once his confidence faltered under the cumulative hardship of the plagues the Torah states that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart i.e., gave him the additional stubbornness to continue in his defiance of God even as his resistance weakened.

The plagues had as one of their purposes to teach Pharaoh that seemingly independent forces of Nature were controlled by God. The goal was for Pharaoh to choose, not react to external stimuli. He needed to conclude on his own (and not because he was being beaten into submission) that God is the Almighty Who Controls Nature. Finally, after the seventh plague of hail when the fire deity was encapsulated within ice deity (an alliance between opposites that could only be created by a Supreme God) Pharaoh realizes and then admits that “I am guilty this time. God is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong”.

But once the hail ceases, Pharaoh reverts to his stubbornness and again musters the courage to continue to resist God.

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz, C.F.A.

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