Va-eira: Taking a Stand at the Nile

January 2, 2019 at 6:44 pm | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | Leave a comment

Aaron’s Rod Changed into a Serpent, Foster Bible Pictures, 1873

The pharaoh is not impressed when Aaron’s staff swallows the staffs of the Egyptian court magicians.  He will not listen to the request of the two men, Moses and Aaron, to let the Hebrew slaves go on a three-day journey to worship their god.  Probably he suspects they will never come back.  Certainly he does not believe their god has any power.1

It is time for the first plague to prove him wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“and he saw”) God tells Moses:

Go to Pharaoh in the morning.  Hey, he will be going out to the water, venitzavta on the shore of the Nile, and the staff that had changed into a snake you shall take in your hand.  And you shall say to him: “God, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say: ‘Send out my people so they can serve me in the wilderness!  And hey, so far you have not listened.’”  (Exodus/Shemot 7:15-16)

venitzavta (וְנִצַּבְתָּ) = and you shall stand, take a stand, station yourself, stand firm.  (A form of the verb nitzav, נִצָּב = took a stand.)

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain,

Moses does so, and then Aaron obeys God’s next order.

Then he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile changed into blood.  (Exodus 7:20)

Pharaoh and those who advise him see for themselves that the Nile is transformed exactly when the staff touches the water, so they cannot invent another explanation for the plague of blood.  But the Pharaoh still refuses to listen to Moses.

After two more plagues, God tells Moses to catch Pharaoh at the waterfront again.

Then God said to Moses: “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh.  Hey, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him: ‘Thus says God: “Send out my people and they will serve me!”  Because if you are not sending out my people, here I am sending out against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses mixed vermin2, and they will fill the houses of Egypt, and even the ground that they are on!’” (Exodus 8:16)

vehityatzeiv (וְהִתְיַצֵּב) = and station yourself, establish yourself.  (Another form of the verb nitzav.)

There is no obvious reason this time for Moses give his warning on the bank of the Nile.  God does not even tell him to use his staff.  It is certainly more dramatic to interrupt Pharaoh’s regular morning routine than to arrive at the palace with all the other petitioners of the day.  But why is the Pharaoh going to the shore of the Nile in the mornings?

Over the centuries commentators have generated a variety of answers.  According to Exodus Rabbah, Pharaoh always sneaked out to the river to relieve his bladder, so nobody would know he was not a god.3  Others proposed that in the morning Pharaoh went out to exercise.4  The Talmud suggested that Pharaoh was a magician and went to the Nile to do divination.5  Ibn Ezra wrote that the king of Egypt went to the Nile to check the water level during the summer flood season.6

Nilometer

Contemporary scholar Scott B. Noegel has argued that none of these explanations fit what we now know about the New Kingdom period in ancient Egypt.7  In fact, Pharaohs spent the whole morning indoors.  They bathed and performed their ritual duties indoors.  During flood season, officials in the Pharaoh’s bureaucracy measured the level of the Nile, not the Pharaoh himself.8

Noegel concludes that the Torah invented Pharaoh’s morning trips to the Nile in order to set up a literary structure dividing the ten plagues into three sets of three followed by the final catastrophe.  “The first plague in each of these series (1st, 4th, 7th) contains Yahweh’s commandment to Moses to “station himself” before pharaoh, each time employing the Hebrew root נצב.  Each also contains the phrase “in the morning.”9

But plagues #1, #4, and #7 do not agree on the location where Moses should intercept Pharaoh.  Only plagues #1 (blood) and #4 (mixed vermin) call for Moses to catch Pharaoh at the Nile.  Before plague #7 (hail) God instructs Moses to “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh.”  But the Torah says nothing about Pharaoh going out to the water; the confrontation could happen anywhere.

*

I think Moses intercepts the Pharaoh at the Nile because it dramatizes this Torah portion’s contrast with an earlier part of the Exodus story the part in which Moses’ sister stations herself at the Nile to intercept Egyptian royalty.

When Moses is only three months old his mother can no longer protect him from the previous Pharaoh’s command that all Hebrew infant boys must be drowned in the Nile.  So she puts him in a little ark among the reeds at the edge of the river.

Moses Saved, by Marc Chagall

His sister, vateitatzav at a distance to find out what would happen to him.  And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe on the Nile, and her girls were walking at hand [along] the Nile.  And she saw the ark in the midst of the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, who fetched it.  And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—it was a boy, crying.  And she took pity on him and she said: “This is one of the Hebrews.”  (Exodus 2:4-6)

vateitatzav (וַתֵּתַצַּב) = she stationed herself.

Once the princess has expressed sympathy for the plight of the Hebrews, Moses’ older sister Miriam speaks up.

And his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: “Shall I go and summon for you a nursing woman from the Hebrews, so she can nurse the child for you?”  And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: “Go.”  And the girl went and she summoned the child’s mother.  (Exodus 2:7-8)

The princess even pays Moses’ mother for the service.  When Moses is weaned, his mother brings him to the princess, and she adopts him.

Miriam stations herself where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter will come down to the water.  She asks the princess to rescue the Hebrew child, and it works.

Eighty years later9 Moses stations himself where he knows the current Pharaoh will come down to the water.  He asks the Pharaoh to rescue the whole Hebrew people, and—as God predicts—it does not work, not even when he confronts the Pharaoh at the Nile again after three plagues.

The difference is that Miriam, her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter are collaborators, not competitors.  All three women want to save the baby’s life more than they want personal control over him.

Moses and the next Pharaoh cannot collaborate because the Pharaoh wants personal control over his kingdom at all costs, while Moses wants to free the population of Hebrews from any Egyptian control.  Both men were brought up in the Egyptian court, both order the death of both Hebrews and Egyptians without flinching,10 and both are the leaders of large populations.  When the two men face one another at the Nile, they stand as two alternatives for rulership.

Moses keeps taking a stand for the well-being of the Hebrew people, defying both Pharaoh and God.11  His goal is to change the status quo in Egypt through a revolutionary emigration to Canaan, at that time a distant part of the Egyptian empire.

Pharaoh takes a stand against any change in Egypt, or in his way of government.

*

We all know people who go into denial about the facts when they feel threatened by change.  We know people who are eager for changes that may be improvements, and willing to take the risk of moving forward.  And we  know people in the middle who recognize history in the making and adapt to it, like the courtiers who beg Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go before Egypt is  destroyed, or like the Hebrews who cannot take a stand against slavery until Moses shows up with an alternative.

The best outcome is when Pharaoh’s daughter can join Miriam and her mother on common ground, cooperating to save a child’s life.  But what about when the Pharaoh and Moses stand against one another at the Nile and find no common ground?

The Torah shows that in the long run slaves will be freed, and a kingdom devastated by its own ruler will recover and become great again.

May such a recovery happen to us, speedily and in our own time.

  1. Exodus 5:2.
  2. There is no consensus about how to translate the Hebrew word for plague #4, arov (עָרֺב). It is usually translated as “insect swarms” or “wild animals”.  Arov appears to be related to a root meaning “mixture”, which is also the root for arov spelled עֲרוֹב = becoming evening.  It is hard to imagine a plague of evenings.  Through another etymology, arov spelled עֵרוֹב = mortgaging.
  3. From Midrash Tanḥuma 2:2:14, 5thcentury E.  (Translation from Scott B. Noegel, “Why Pharaoh Went to the Nile”, www.thetorah.com/why-pharaoh-went-to-the-nile/, 04/07/2017.)   This explanation also appeared in Exodus Rabbah 9:8 and in the commentary of Rashi (Shlomoh Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.).
  4. Rashbam (R. Shlomo ben Meir, 12th century) suggested Pharaoh went riding, Ramban (Moses men Nachman or Nachmanides, 12th century) that he played in the water, Bekhor Shor (12th century) that he went hawking, and Abarbanel (15th century) that he was strolling or playing ball. (Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 48)
  5. Talmud Bavli, Mo-ed Katan 18a.
  6. Ibn Ezra (12th century) according to Noegel, ibid.
  7. The Exodus story is set in the New Kingdom period in Egypt, during the 16th-11th centuries B.C.E.
  8. Noegel, ibid.
  9. This week’s Torah portion reports Moses’ age as 80 and Aaron’s as 83 (Exodus 7:7).
  10. Moses kills an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12) and orders the killing of Hebrew golden calf worshippers (Exodus 32:26-28). The Pharaoh orders the execution of every male Hebrew infant (Exodus 1:15-22) and refuses to prevent the deaths of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 11:4-10).
  11. Moses talks God out of abandoning the Hebrew people in Exodus 32:9-12 and 31-32, after the golden calf episode, and in Numbers 14:11-17.

Bo & Va-eira: A Hard Habit

January 17, 2018 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Bo, Va-eira | Leave a comment

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Blood, frogs, lice or gnats, swarms of vermin, livestock disease, skin disease, hail, locusts, impenetrable darkness, death of the firstborn.  Why does it take ten miraculous plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo before Pharaoh lets the Israelite slaves go?1

When Moses first returns to Egypt, he and his brother Aaron simply ask the new pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves three days off to make animal sacrifices to their God in the wilderness.2  Pharaoh replies that he does not know this god.  Then he increases the workload of the Israelites, so they will not even think about taking a vacation.  Ruling through oppression is the model his father used, the only model he knows.

Moses and Aaron return to perform a small demonstration miracle.  Aaron throws down a staff that turns into a crocodile.3  Pharaoh summons his wonder-workers, who perform a similar trick.  Even though Aaron’s magic crocodile eats the Egyptians’ magic crocodiles, Pharaoh refuses to be impressed.

Vayechezak, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken.  And God said to Moses: “Kaveid is the leiv of Pharaoh; he refuses to let the people go”.  (Exodus 7:13-14)

vayechezak (וַיֶּחֶזַק) = and it hardened, became stronger, became unyielding.  (From the same root as chazak, חָזָק = strong, firm, resolute.)

leiv (לֵב) = heart; conscious mind, conscious thoughts and feelings.

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, dull and slow, immobilized; oppressive, impressive.

Pharaoh’s mind is already so heavy that it “hardens” itself; he dismisses questions before they arise, and continues to behave as he always has.

We are what we learn

Moses and the current pharaoh both grew up in the Egyptian court.  But Moses was the son of Israelite slaves before he was adopted by an Egyptian princess, and he never forgot his origins.  As a young man, he left Egypt and joined a Midianite clan east of Sinai.  Thus he learned how to adapt to novel situations with curiosity and an open mind.  When he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed he approached it, and when he heard God’s voice he believed it.

Nevertheless, Moses argued with God.  At the burning bush he tried five times to get out of returning to Egypt as God’s prophet before he finally accepted his mission and changed his life again.4

Pharaoh Ramses III followed by his son

The old pharaoh’s firstborn son, on the other hand, grew up knowing he would someday succeed his father as the god-like ruler of Egypt.  All he had to do was learn his predefined role.  He had no reason to question anything, no new situations to master.

After the staff-crocodile demonstration the miraculous plagues begin: seven in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, and three this week in Bo.  Several times Pharaoh promises Moses and Aaron that if they get God to end the current plague, he will let the Israelites go for three days.5  But as soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh goes back on his promise.  After each plague, Pharaoh’s leiv returns to being either chazak or kaveid.  He acts as if he can continue to depend on the labor of his Israelite slaves, and their God will not afflict the country with another miracle.

Pharaoh’s mind hardens on its own after six of the plagues, but God ensures its rigidity after the plagues of skin disease, locusts, and darkness.

Plague of Boils, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

After the sixth plague, a skin rash with boils,

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken to Moses.  (Exodus 9:12)

Vayechazeik (וַיְחַזֵּק) = and [God] hardened, strengthened, made rigid.  (Another verb form from the same root as chazak.)

Why does God intervene?  One possibility is that Pharaoh is finally wavering, wondering whether his refusal to listen to Moses is taking too a high toll on his country—or on his own body.  Is his “heart” softening, his mind becoming a little more flexible?  If so, God apparently wants to prevent Pharaoh from changing his mind too soon, before God has finished the whole demonstration.

Plague of Locusts, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

During the plagues of locusts and darkness in this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh switches from empty promises to genuine offers—with conditions.  While the locusts are devouring all the remaining crops, he offers to let the Israelite men go, as long as their children remain hostage in Egypt.  Moses refuses the condition.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not let the Israelites go.  (Exodus 10:20)

During the plague of impenetrable darkness, Pharaoh offers to let all the Israelites go for three days, as long as they leave their flocks and herds behind.  Again Moses refuses.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, so he was not willing to let them go.  (Exodus 10:27)

Pharaoh remains attached to being the all-powerful ruler of an economy based on slavery.  Is God or Pharaoh responsible for the king’s inability to imagine a new world order?

Free will

If God is deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s mind, then the king of Egypt has no free will.  God is depriving Pharaoh of the ability to make choices.

The idea that God can remove a human being’s free will has disturbed commentators through the ages.  The ability to make our own choices is part of being human, according to the book of Genesis; God gave Adam and Eve the ability to decide whether to eat from the Tree of Knowledge or not.  And we all prefer to believe that we are not automatons, that it is possible for us to choose and change.

Other commentators have argued that God hardens Pharaoh’s mind not by making him more stubborn, but by giving him the courage to bear the suffering caused by his bad choices.  God does not want Pharaoh to make a reasonable decision because he realizes that his country is collapsing into poverty and disease.  Instead, God wants Pharaoh to believe in the power of God and repent.  So instead of making Pharaoh more stubborn, God gives Pharaoh the courage to bear the suffering of Egypt.6

Yet the Torah describes God as making Pharaoh’s heart chazak and kaveid, the same two words it uses for what Pharaoh does to himself.  It does not use an alternate word or phrase to indicate strengthening by instilling courage.7

Another possible reading of God’s intervention is that Pharaoh’s mind is already so inflexible that God does not need to make it any more rigid.  He has developed an ingrained habit of hardening his heart the moment a disaster ends.

Some commentators have written that the book of Exodus gives God credit for the power of habit.  God made humans so that the longer someone persists in doing evil, the harder it becomes to switch to doing good.8

Modern neuroscience shows that the human brain cannot make an unaccustomed choice in the heat of the moment.  The choice happens and our words or actions are triggered before we become consciously aware of what we have already decided.  In order to make a free choice, we have to train ourselves to pause as soon as we become aware of our reaction, then give ourselves time to make a conscious decision.

One last time

Death of Firstborn, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

When Moses announces the tenth plague, death of the firstborn, he storms out before Pharaoh can react.  Why should he listen to another empty promise, another unacceptable bargain?

In the middle of the night, death strikes the oldest son of everyone in Egypt, from the Pharaoh to the lowest slave—except for the Israelites who are safe inside the houses they have marked with lamb’s blood for that night.9  Only after his own son is killed does Pharaoh come to Moses and insist that all the Israelites must leave, without conditions.  In the morning, the exodus from Egypt begins.

Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, Pharaoh reconsiders one more time.  The damage has been done, so why should he lose so many slaves whose labor could help rebuild Egypt?  He sends an army to pursue his ex-slaves across the wilderness.  Pharaoh has not truly broken his habit.

*

Some of us are like Pharaoh, and cannot break our bad habits for more than a day, even after life has hammered at us from every side.  Yet many of us are like Moses; although we may refuse to accept our calling five times, we then find the courage to change and do what really needs to be done.  What a blessing to know that Moses’ response is also possible!

May every mind that has become hard and heavy finally open, and receive the blessing of change.

  1. Psalm 78 lists seven plagues, and Psalm 105 lists eight. See my post Va-eira & Bo: Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles.
  2. Exodus 5:1.
  3. When God rehearses this demonstration with Moses in Exodus 4:1-5, Moses’ staff becomes a nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. Most modern scholars attribute this version of the demonstration miracle to a story from the northern kingdom of Israel, the “E” source. In the demonstration in 7:10, Aaron throws down the staff and it becomes a tannin (תַנִּין) = crocodile, cobra, or other large reptile.  This version  is considered a later addition from the “P” source, written by priests sometime after the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem was built.
  4. See my post last week, Ve-eira and Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  5. Frogs (Exodus 8:4), swarms of vermin (Exodus 8:21-24), and hail (Exodus 9:27-28).
  6. Nehama Leibowitz cites 15th-century rabbi Joseph Albo and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno in New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, translated by Aryeh Newman, Zion Ezra Production, Maor Wallach Press, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 152-153.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 2:30 uses the phrase imeitz et levavo (אִמֵּץ אֶת־לְבַבוֹ) to say that God had made King Sihon’s heart braver.
  8. Rambam (12th-century rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, chapter 5, cited in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, pp. 155-156.
  9. Exodus 12:21-23.

Va-era & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2

January 10, 2018 at 11:59 am | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | 5 Comments

Moses flees Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, because he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man.1  He returns to Egypt as God’s prophet, but the new pharaoh responds to his request by increasing the work of the Israelite slaves.2

Egyptian brick-making

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses tries to convince the Israelite slaves that God really has sent him to liberate them.  But they are unable to listen, because they are short of breath (or spirit) from their hard labor.3  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh again, he balks, saying:

“Hey!  The Israelites would not listen to me, so how would Pharaoh listen?  And my lips are aral!”  (Exodus 6:12)

aral (עָרַל) = uncircumcised, possessing a foreskin.

Power of Speech

Moses expresses the problem more literally in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  When he sees the burning bush, he notices something numinous that others might overlook—a fire that burns but does not consume—and he steps closer to it.  So God speaks to the potential prophet and orders him to return to Egypt and demand that the pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their own god.

But Moses is unwilling to accept the job.  He tries to turn down his mission five times, and each time God answers his objection.4  For his fourth attempt to excuse himself, Moses says he is the wrong man for the job because he is not a good speaker.

And Moses said to God: “Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, yesterday, nor the day before, nor earlier than when you spoke to your servant; for I am kaveid of peh and kaveid of lashon.”  (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = (When used as an adjective for a body part): heavy, dull, hard, insensitive, clumsy.  (When used as an adjective for a person): honored, impressive, oppressive.

peh (פֶּה) = mouth; statement, spoken command.

lashon (לָשׁוֹן) = tongue; language.

A kaveid mouth and tongue are like aral lips.  Some thickness, covering, or blockage prevents Moses from speaking effectively.

Moses could merely be making another desperate excuse to avoid the mission in Egypt.  But since he claims his lips are aral in the portion Va-eira, after he is already in Egypt, he must be truly blocked, either physically or psychologically.

Commentators have proposed that Moses has a speech impediment or stutter5, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language6, and that he lacks the enthusiastic dedication to be eloquent enough to persuade anyone.7

In the Torah, circumcision of the foreskin is not just the removal of a covering, but a sign of consecration to God’s covenant with the people of Israel.8  The symbol of a man’s power in the Torah is a staff.  Circumcision dedicates a male’s power to God.

I think Moses feels powerless in both Shemot and Va-eira because he has had no authority to speak.  When he is accused of murder in Egypt, he flees instead of defending himself.  Then he serves for decades as a shepherd under the Midianite priest Jethro/Yitro, and defers to his authority.  Moses has been silent so long that his mouth, tongue, and lips feel too heavy to move.

Furthermore, he has never spoken as a Hebrew or Israelite before.  Once he was weaned, he lived in the Egyptian court as the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter.  He arrived in Midianite territory as an Egyptian, and married the daughter of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does Moses discover the God of his ancestors.

When Moses pleads that his mouth and tongue are too kaveid to speak well, God replies:

“Who puts the peh in humankind, or who appoints the dumb or the deaf, the clear-sighted or the blind?  Is it not I, God?  Now go, and I myself will be with your peh and I will instruct you what you shall speak!”

But he said: “Excuse me, my lord, please send by the hand of whom you will send!”  And God burned in anger against Moses.  (Exodus 4:11-14)

After God overrides Moses’ fourth protest, he has no more excuses.  He merely begs God to send someone else.  God gets angry, but tells Moses he can use his brother Aaron as a go-between.  Finally Moses gives up.  He returns to his father-in-law and asks his permission to go to Egypt.

Power of Blood

Moses, Tzipporah, and sons,
Rylands Haggadah

On the way, at a lodging-place, God met him and sought to put him to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his raglayim, and she said: “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!”  And it/he desisted from him.  That was when she said: “A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions”.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.

The only clear information in this brief ambiguous story is that the is that one of Tzipporah’s sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him.  Which son is uncircumcised?  Whom does God seek to put to death?  If it is Moses, why would God attack him?  Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?  Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?  Why does this save him from death?

In last week’s post (Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1) I argued that the uncircumcised son is probably their firstborn, Geirshom, and that God seeks to put Moses to death.  The remaining enigmas in the “Bridegroom of Blood” passage can all be related to Moses’ feeling that he is incapable of serving as God’s prophet because his lips are aral.

Why would God attack Moses?

According to one Talmudic opinion, God wants to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his son, and therefore left the boy outside the covenant between God and the Israelites.  (See Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1.)

But there is a more psychologically compelling reason for God to attack Moses: God is still angry about Moses’ five attempts to reject his assignment.  (Three later prophets in the bible are initially reluctant, but accept their vocation after one demurral.9  Only Moses continues to argue with God.  Rashbam6 wrote that God’s anger over Moses’ rejection leads to the attack on the way to Egypt.)

In the 21st century, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote: “It is striking that when he complained about his speech problem at the Burning Bush, God made no move to heal him; he did not even promise him that his situation would change, for this problem is expressive of a radical resistance on Moses’ part, which arouses God’s anger and almost brings about his death …”10

It is Moses’ responsibility to rise to God’s challenge and remove his own impediment.  So far he has failed.

Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?

The Hebrew Bible requires an Israelite father to circumcise each of his sons eight days after birth, in order to enroll the infant boy into the covenant between the Israelites and God.11  Although Moses knows his birth parents were Israelites12, he grew up in the Egyptian court, then joined the family of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does he discover the God of Israel.

After Moses finally accepts the job God gives him, it may not even occur to him to mark his firstborn son as a member of the Israelites’ covenant with God.

While Moses lies helpless under God’s attack, his Midianite wife, Tzipporah, takes action.  Her first thought might be to appease God through an animal sacrifice.  The Midianites as well as the Israelites shared the Canaanite custom of sacrificing animals to their gods.13  But the only animal they have with them is the donkey that Tzipporah and the boys need to travel through the desert.

Then Tzipporah has an inspiration.  She can sacrifice a small bit of blood and flesh from their own son to the God who has commandeered Moses.  She knows that this God approves of circumcision, since Moses is circumcised.14

Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?

The Torah says only that Tzipporah touches the foreskin to “his” raglayim—to someone’s feet, or legs, or genitals.  I believe she uses Geirshom’s foreskin to dab blood on Moses’ genitals as a symbolic second circumcision, a rededication to the God of Israel.  Her explanation “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!” is an incantation that completes the sympathetic magic.

If circumcising Moses’ firstborn son is not enough to appease God, this additional ritual, she hopes, will do the trick.  And it works.

Why does this save Moses from death?

If God is angry at Moses, why would Tzipporah’s actions solve the problem?

The book of Exodus presents God in two different ways.  Usually God speaks like an intelligent but easily offended human being.  This anthropomorphic God is the character who talks with Moses at the burning bush, and gives him further instructions just before he sets off for Egypt.

Painting blood on the doorposts, Paris Bible c. 1390

This God-character also gets angry, and “his” anger sometimes releases a divine force which slaughters people indiscriminately.  Before the tenth plague strikes Egypt, Moses warns the Israelite slaves about the coming “death of the firstborn”, and tells them to daub lamb’s blood on their lintels and doorposts.

And God will pass through to strike Egypt, and “he” will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and God will skip over the entrance, and “he” will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to strike.  (Exodus 12:23)

Here “the Destroyer” refers to God’s raging alter ego, which does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent and cannot stop itself without a dramatic visible sign.15  The blood on Moses’ genitals proves as effective as the blood on the Israelite doorways in halting this primitive aspect of God, which does not distinguish between individuals.

Power of Dedication

Moses is not merely reluctant to become God’s prophet; he is afraid of speaking for God and getting it all wrong.  The anthropomorphic God-character becomes angry with Moses for trying to excuse himself from the job instead of trusting God’s assurances.  A silent, more primitive aspect of God seeks to kill Moses on the way to Egypt.

Tzipporah responds by physically circumcising their son.  Then she symbolically re-circumcises her husband, rededicating him to the covenant with God.  This act also serves to metaphorically circumcise Moses’ lips, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.

At first Moses does not realize the full extent of what his wife has done.  He sends Tzipporah back to her father, along with their sons—perhaps for their own safety, now that he knows how deadly God can be.  (See my post Yitro: Rejected Wife.)  When he first arrives in Egypt, he uses Aaron to speak to the pharaoh for him, believing his lips are still aral.  Only when the ten miraculous plagues begin does Moses find his own voice.

*

What does it mean to be dedicated to God?  A Jewish ritual dedicating eight-day-old boys only shows how their parents identify them.  Adults might follow all the extant rules of a religion out of habit and to fit in with their community, but lack the personal and vitally serious dedication that Moses accepts after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.

Can that kind of dedication to God come only out of necessity, as a life-and-death choice?  What about those of us who are not threatened?  Can we at least choose to dedicate ourselves to seeking out God?

  1. Exodus 3:11-15.
  2. Exodus 5:1-9.
  3. Exodus 6:9. The Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) can mean wind, breath, or spirit.
  4. The first three times are in Exodus 3:11-12, Exodus 3:14-15, and Exodus 4:2-9.
  5. Exodus Rabbah 1:26 tells a story in which Moses burns his lips as a child. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses stammered and mumbled.
  6. Rashbam (12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Meir).
  7. g. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Exodus 4:10; and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 176.
  8. Genesis 17:9-15.
  9. Isaiah feels unworthy until an angel purifies his lips (Isaiah 6:1-8); Jeremiah protests a single time that he is too young to know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:4-9); and Jonah flees because he does not want to obey God and give his enemies a chance to repent (Jonah 1:1-3).
  10. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 161.
  11. Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:1-3. By the fourth century C.E., there were also professional circumcisers called mohalim.
  12. Exodus 2:11.
  13. Tzipporah’s father, Yitro, demonstrates animal sacrifice when he comes to visit Moses and the liberated Israelites camping near Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:10-12).
  14. Moses would have undergone circumcision either as an infant with Hebrew parents, or at puberty as an upper-class Egyptian. Talmud tractate Nedarim 32a and Exodus Rabbah 5:8 imagine Tzipporah watching the angel of death swallow Moses from his head down to his genitals, where Moses’ circumcision stops the process.
  15. Besides Exodus 4:24-25 and 12:29, other examples of God as a mute, irrational force of destruction, unable to distinguish the innocent from the guilty without an obvious sign, appear in Numbers 11:1-3 (fire), Numbers 25:1-9 (plague after Baal Pe-or worship), and 1 Samuel 6:19 (the ark).

Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 3 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

*

Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Hafarat Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God

January 3, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.

Apparently God really wants Egypt to know who God is. The god of Israel asks the prophet Moses to tell Pharaoh “and you will know that I am God” three times in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira. And God tells the prophet Ezekiel how God will bring down the Egyptians “and they will know that I am God” four times in this week’s haftarah.

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Before God inflicts the first of ten terrible miracles on Egypt, God instructs Moses to meet Pharaoh on the shore of the Nile and warn him that the water will turn into blood.

And you shall say to him: YHVH, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go and they shall serve Me in the wilderness’, but hey—you did not listen before now. Thus says YHVH: ‘By this teida that ani YHVH’. (Exodus 7:16-17)

YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah  or hayah (הוה or היה) the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, but it is a form that does not fit any Hebrew verb conjugations.

teida (תֵּדַע) = you will know, experience, be acquainted with, recognize, realize, have intercourse with.

ani (אֲנִי) = I [am].

Pharaoh hardens his heart during the seven days of bloody water, claiming it is not a divine miracle, so he does not experience or recognize the god of Israel.

God’s goal of being known by Pharaoh reappears when Moses talks about the second miracle, the plague of frogs:

… so that teida that there is none like YHVH our god. (Exodus 8:6)

—and again when God tells Moses the fourth plague will be more miraculous, because the swarm will be excluded from the place where the Israelites live,

…so that teida that ani YHVH in the midst of the land. (Exodus 8:18)

It takes ten miracles or plagues before Pharaoh finally knows YHVH, and can no longer harden his heart in denial. The knowledge comes from experiencing what God can do in the world.

The haftarah for this week’s Torah portion is a passage from the book of Ezekiel, set many centuries later during the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelite nation of Judah in 597 BCE. Judah had asked Egypt to help it fight the Babylonians, and Egypt had not come to the rescue. So Ezekiel prophesies that God will restore the land to the Israelites and punish Egypt, and both peoples will “know” God.

build houses and plant vineyards…then they will dwell on their soil that I gave to My servant, to Jacob. And they will dwell on it in safety, and they will build houses and plant vineyards, and they will dwell on it in safety when I have passed judgments on all those who despise them from all around; veyad-u that ani YHVH their god. (Ezekiel 28:25-26)

veyad-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will know, realize, experience, etc. (A form of the same verb as teida.)

The Israelites will once again know YHVH is their god when they have first-hand experience of this amazing reversal in fortune.

The hafatarah continues with a poem describing the future downfall of Egypt. Then Ezekiel says:

Thus said my master, YHVH: Here I am over you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt …To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky I have given you for food. Veyade-u, all the inhabitants of Egypt, that ani YHVH; because you were a walking-stick of reed to the House of Israel; when their hand grasped you, you would break…(Ezekiel 29:3-6)

The implication is that because Egypt failed to support the Israelites, God will make sure all Egyptians know from experience who YHVH is.

And the land of Egypt will become a deserted place and a ruin; veyade-u that ani YHVH, because he [Pharaoh] said: The Nile is mine and I made it. (Ezekiel 29:9)

Egyptians must also realize that although their pharaoh claimed he created the Nile, really YHVH created everything. In order to accomplish this, God will reduce Egypt to the lowest of nations.

And never again will they inspire trust in the House of Israel … veyade-u that ani the lord YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:16)

Therefore, thus says my master YHVH: Here I am, giving the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. And he will carry off her wealth and loot her loot and plunder her plunder, and she will be a reward for his army. …On that day… veyade-u that ani YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:19, 29:21)

In all of these cases in Exodus and Ezekiel, people are expected to realize who God is after they have experienced an unexpected disaster or triumph, a miraculous change in fortune. The experience is supposed to be so powerful that both Israelites and Egyptians will realize that only the most powerful god in the world could create such a miracle, and that this supreme god is the god of Israel.

Furthermore, both peoples will know God by the name YHVH, the four-letter name based on the verb “to be”.  Is this detail repeatedly included simply because it is the name the Israelites use for their god? Or does it carry another meaning?

In last year’s post on this Torah portion (Va-eira: The Right Name) I suggested that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing, but too abstract for an emotional relationship with God. Now I notice that the phrase “know that I am YHVH” always occurs in the Torah and haftarah portions in the context of knowing God’s power to change fate and to create. What is most important is for the Egyptians and for the defeated and deported Israelites to realize that the god of Israel is the god of existence itself. Nothing can have power over YHVH.

I have experienced no inexplicable miracles or reversals of fortune in my own life. I do not know God in that way. I acknowledge the reality of being, that there is something rather than nothing, and I could call that God, even if it is irrelevant to the anthropomorphic god of the Bible.

But I will not. My unmiraculous life is full of meaning and my soul is full of awe, so “I know”—yadati (יָדַעְתִּי)—that there is something I might as well call God that goes beyond the fact of existence.

Teida that ani YHVH = You will know that I am Being.

Then what, or who, is the “I”?

Va-eira: The Right Name

January 12, 2015 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Va-eira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Go to the king of Egypt, and tell him to declare a three-day holiday for his labor force, so they can go out into the wilderness and worship a god the king has never heard of.

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II

This is the mission God gives Moses in the first Torah portion of Exodus/Shemot. Moses tries to get out of it, but God insists, and Moses gives in.

And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says YHWH, god of Israel: Send out My people and they will celebrate-a-festival for Me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said: Who is YHWH that I should listen to His voice and send out the Israelites? I do not know YHWH… (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

YHWH = probably a form of the verb hayah (היה) = be, exist, become, occur. A variant spelling of this verb is havah or hawah (הוה). If the initial Y (י) indicates a third-person singular imperfect form, YHWH = he/it becomes, he/it exists, he/it will be.  If the four-letter word is a unique verb form, YHWH = us-was-will be; being-becoming.

(YHWH is considered the most sacred name of God, God’s four-letter personal name. I do not include the Hebrew spelling here because according to Jewish tradition, any text containing the personal name of God must be treated with respect and disposed of by special means. Furthermore, the name YHWH is not supposed to be pronounced except once a year inside the Holy of Holies—which has not existed since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., almost 2,000 years ago.)

Since Pharaoh does not know YHWH, he refuses to give the Israelites three days off.  Instead he doubles the work of the Israelites forced to build his cities. The Israelite foremen complain to Moses, and Moses complains to God:

Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people, and You certainly did not rescue Your people! (Exodus 5:23)

Moses’ words imply that the name of God is ineffective. But for God, everything is going according to plan.  As God tells Moses repeatedly in this week’s portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), God’s purpose in performing miracles in Egypt is: 1) so that the Israelites will know their own God as YHWH, and 2) so that the Egyptians will know the power of the god YHWH.

From God’s point of view, the ten miraculous “plagues” God plans to create will be all the more effective coming from a previously unknown god. God assures Moses that although it will be a long process, at its conclusion God will indeed rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to Canaan.

But first God insists on being known by the right name.

And Elohim spoke to Moses, and said to him:  I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Eil Shaddai, but [by] my name YHWH I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (when used with a plural verb suffix); God (when used with a singular verb suffix).

eil (אֵל) = god

shaddai (שַׁדָּי) = of breasts (if it comes from shad = breast), of devastation (if it comes from shadad = devastate), of the mountain (if it comes from the Akkadian word shadu).

In the book of Genesis Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob certainly know that YHWH is one of God’s names; all three of them sometimes use that name to refer to God. So why does God claim, in this week’s Torah portion, “my name YHWH I did not make known to them”?

Most commentators explain that the three patriarchs knew God in terms of the attribute or power associated with the name Eil Shaddai, but not in terms of the power associated with the name YHWH.

In fact, the name Shaddai only appears six times in the book of Genesis, four times followed by blessings for being fruitful and multiplying (17:1, 28:3, 35:11, and 48:3). Jacob also uses that name of God to pray for rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = mercy (literally, “wombs”—43:14) and to bless Joseph with “blessings of breasts and womb” (49:25).

Although Eil Shaddai took on other meanings in later books of the Hebrew Bible, it seems safe to say that as far as the three patriarchs are concerned, Eil Shaddai is the name of the god of fertility. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all concerned with the question of fertility, and want to be founders of a people or nation.

But in the book of Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt are not concerned about fertility. (The first pharaoh worries about the rapid birth rate of the Israelites; his son, the pharoah Moses speaks to in God’s name, agrees that there are far too many Israelites.) A different aspect of God is needed to impress both Israelites and Egyptians. And God Itself seems eager to promote a new identity.

One can deduce the divine power associated with Eil Shaddai from context, but this cannot be done with the name YHWH.  The four-letter name appears 162 times in the book of Genesis alone, in a wide variety of actions and statements by God.

Commentary on which divine aspect is represented by the name YHWH ranges from the god of miracles (12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra); to the god expressed by all ten sefirot, i.e. divine emanations (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of kabbalah possibly written in the 4th century); to the preserver of existence (16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno).

Rameses II (right) dedicating a temple to his god, Amun-Ra

Rameses II (right) dedicating a temple to his god, Amun-Ra

All three of these interpretations boil down to the idea that God is the supreme deity; if any other gods can be said to exist, they are only emanations of YHWH, the god whose name means existence itself.

In the Exodus story, God wants Egypt to know that the god of the Israelites is the most powerful god in world, far more powerful than any of Egypt’s gods. And God wants the Israelites to know that the god who is making a covenant with them is not merely a fertility god, but a god with power over everything. Once everyone knows that God is YHWH, nobody can question God’s existence or decisions.

Or so God thinks, in the first two portions of the book of Exodus.

As the story continues, we read that after each time Pharaoh admitted the superior power of the god of the Israelites, he changed his mind and behaved as if he could win the contest with YHWH.  Even after the tenth and final plague, when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites leave Egypt, he changes his mind again and sends his army to pursue them.  He only gives up after God splits the Reed Sea for the Israelites, then drowns the Egyptian army.

The Israelites themselves keep forgetting their god’s awesome power over life and death. As they travel through the wilderness of Sinai they worry whenever they run out of water or food, when Moses does not return from the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and when they face enemy forces. They cannot seem to trust the god who has taken them as Its people, even when the name of that god is YHWH.

Why doesn’t the name work?

I think that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing. And sometimes I feel grateful that this universe exists, or that everything is in the process of becoming.

But psychologically, human beings cannot have a relationship with “existence” or “becoming”; the concepts are too abstract. To be followed, or loved, or feared, or trusted, God must be named after a more human attribute.

Eil Shaddai, the god of fertility, is not a useful divine name for most people today. When we lack children, we take practical steps; otherwise, we enjoy being fruitful in our own creative endeavors. Elohim, the God who combines the powers of all gods, is an irrelevant name at a time when nearly everyone is either an atheist or a monotheist. And YHWH, the concept of being and becoming, is too abstract for a relationship.

Then what name can inspire us to strive to “know” God? I welcome your suggestions.

 

Va-eira: A Request for Wilderness

December 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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What does Moses request from the pharaoh of Egypt?

In Moses’ first encounter with God, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that the long-term plan is to take the children of Israel out of Egypt and relocate them in Canaan. But then God says:

You and the elders of Israel shall come to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, manifested to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for God, our god. (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)

midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert), uninhabited land

What difference would it make if the Israelites were granted a leave of absence for a week (three days into the wilderness, perhaps a day for the ceremonies, and three days back), if they had to go back to corvée labor building brick storehouses as soon as they returned? Why not have Moses ask the pharaoh for their emancipation from forced labor in the first place?

I always used to wonder if the ulterior motive was to get all the Israelites far enough away so that they could simply continue toward Mount Sinai, instead of returning. After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them three days to get to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. Red Sea), where God creates the miracle that liberates them from Egypt for good.

However, God knows that the pharaoh would not grant the request for a leave of absence. So the value of this initial request on behalf of the Israelites must lie in the concepts it expresses: going into the wilderness, and serving their own god.

The pharaoh reacts to Moses’ request by giving the Israelites additional work instead of an unpaid vacation. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses and his brother Aaron come before the pharaoh a second time, and demonstrate the miracle of the staff that turns into a snake. Pharaoh is unmoved, so God begins the series of “ten plagues”, ten miraculous devastating events.

The pharaoh ignores the first plague, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood. The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.

…and he said: Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to God. (Exodus 8:4)

After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh makes his heart heavy and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain. Only after the fourth plague (arov (עָרֹב) = literally “mixers”, possibly a swarm of mixed insects or wild beasts) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer.

And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: Go! Slaughter offerings to your god in the land. (Exodus 8:21)

Moses refuses. He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt. His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.

So Pharaoh said: I, I will send you, and you shall slaughter offerings for God, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away. Plead for me! (Exodus 8:24)

Of course, after Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites their leave of absence.

During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.

Why can the Israelites only serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt? For one thing, the pharaoh is an absolute ruler. In all the inhabited parts of his country, everyone is required to serve him as if he were a god. But, as we learn later in the book of Exodus, the god of the Israelites is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service. One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

Furthermore, the wilderness seems to be where it is easiest to connect with God. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva. Jacob first encounters God in a rocky spot on his journey through the wilderness north of Beersheva, and wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area by the Yabok River. Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, and then he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says: And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)

In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection. I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we serve God together. I miss these prayer services when I go too long without them.

Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine inside me, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people (even praying people or inspiring speakers) to distract me, and no other artifacts of civilization to remind me of what else I might be doing. If I see only plants, dirt, and sky, if I hear only the wind and my own breathing, then I can do a different kind of prayer, and sink down into a deep place.

In that place, I am separated from my usual enslavements. I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve. The words “God” and “service” are slippery concepts, but you might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom. And a little freedom returns with me when I leave the wilderness and return to the world of people.

May we all find that wilderness when we need it.

(I will be traveling next week, with no opportunity to write a post on the next Torah portion, Bo. Click on these links if you want to read my previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my post two weeks from now, on Beshallach (“And he sent”), when the Israelites leave Egypt and immediately encounter some daunting new problems.)

Shemot & Va-eira: Staff, Snake, Crocodile

January 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Shemot, Va-eira | Leave a comment

At the burning bush, in last week’s Torah portion (Shemot), God gives Moses his mission: to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses protests that the Israelites will not believe that their god appeared to him, so they will not listen to him. God responds by showing Moses two “signs” he can perform to demonstrate that God is with him.

God said to him: What is this in your hand? And he said: a matteh. Then (God) said: Throw it to the ground. So he threw it to the ground, and it became a nachash, and Moses fled from it. Then God said to Moses: Reach out your hand and grasp it by its tail. And he reached out his hand and he held it, and it became a matteh in his palm. (Exodus/Shemot 4:2-3)

matteh = staff, an official symbol of authority

nachash = snake, instrument of divination or bewitchment

Both a staff and a snake are phallic symbols, and I suspect the image of a snake stiffening into a staff when Moses holds it in his palm is a deliberate evocation of an erection. The staff and the snake represent two varieties of masculine creative power. God uses them to demonstrate, first to Moses and then to the Israelites, that the ultimate control over everything masculine belongs to God.

In the Torah, a staff is not only a stick used by a shepherd, but also a symbol of authority over a tribe or a country. Sometimes the twelve tribes of Israel are called mattot, staves. So I think that on another level, the staff-snake-staff  transformation illustrates God’s power over both the bewitching snake in the Garden of Eden, and the twelve tribes that God will liberate from Egypt.

God shows Moses a second “sign” to use if the Israelites are insufficiently impressed by the first one. At God’s cue, Moses puts his hand into the front fold of his garment, and when he withdraws it, the hand is covered with dreaded skin disease tzara-at, “like snow”. Then he puts his hand back in, and pulls it out completely healed. The underlying message is that God controls both sickness and health.

Moses has to use both signs to convince the Israelites that he really is speaking for their god, but then they do believe him. Next, Moses and his brother Aaron ask the pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves take a three-day vacation and go into the wilderness to worship their god. They refer to God by God’s personal name, the four-letter name related to the verb meaning “to be” or “to become”. God has already told Moses that the pharaoh will refuse, and he does, saying that he does not know any god by that name.

The pharaoh then increases the workload of the Israelite slaves. When they protest, he says Moses’ vacation request proves they are lazy. So the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for their unpaid overtime.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (And I appeared), God tells Moses to speak to the pharaoh again, and adds:

When Pharoah speaks to you, saying “Give for yourselves a mofeit“, then say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh”. It will become a tannin. (Exodus 7:9)

mofeit = portent, marvel (from the same root as mefateyha = deceiving, persuading)

tannin = a giant reptile (such as a crocodile), a sea monster

The pharaoh says exactly what God predicts. Some commentary assumes that the pharaoh is refusing to listen to another request until Moses and Aaron prove to him that they are bona fide magicians for a god. But I agree with the 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who argued that the pharaoh is challenging Moses and Aaron to redeem their ruined reputation in public, by producing a wonder for themselves. He thinks that when they fail to produce a marvel, and his own magicians succeed, any whisper of a slave revolt will be nipped in the bud.

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did thus, as God had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a tannin. Then Pharaoh also called for the sages and for the sorcerers, and they also, the diviners of Egypt, did thus with their flame-magic. And each one threw down his staff, and they became tanninim. And the staff of Aaron swallowed down their staffs. But Pharaoh’s heart was firm, and he did not listen to them, just as God had spoken. (Exodus 7:10-13) 

Why does the staff become a snake for the Israelites, but a tannin for the pharaoh? One theory is that the crocodile was important to Egyptian religion. The transformation of a staff into a crocodile would remind Egyptians of their crocodile god, Sobek, who both created the Nile and gave strength to the pharaoh. In the Torah, Aaron’s crocodile confronts the pharaoh’s crocodiles. When Aaron’s swallows down all the others, it is an obvious omen that the god of Moses and Aaron will triumph over the pharaoh.

The Hebrew in the Torah implies that Aaron’s crocodile does not swallow down the others until after it has changed back into a staff. According to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, God arranges it that way because it is more impressive for an inanimate object to swallow things. The Midrash says the pharaoh is amazed, and afraid that the staff might swallow up him and his throne next. Nevertheless, he strengthens his psyche with firm resolve, the first of a series of heart-hardenings.

Modern Torah readers are familiar with the concept that God is omnipotent. The magic tricks that God arranges with a staff seem like a sideshow before the main action of the ten plagues begins. Yet it is necessary for Moses to prove to both the Israelites and the Egyptians that he really is speaking for a powerful god, and that his God is more powerful than any Egyptian god or Egyptian magic. Otherwise the Israelites will never follow him out of Egypt, and the pharaoh might attribute the plagues to other deities.

Therefore the staff is not Moses’ phallic symbol, nor Aaron’s. It is God’s phallic symbol, as God shows off to the simple-minded people in Egypt, from slave to monarch. It would be easy for me, as a feminist, to mock these crude displays of male power. Yet even today, that is what it takes to get some people’s attention.

Moses notices the subtle miracle of the bush that burned without being consumed. But not everyone is able to notice subtle cues and then question their views of reality.  In the Torah, the pharaoh does not give up on his assumption that he must keep his slaves until he is hit with the death of his own first-born son. I know people like that today.

I do not know how much I can notice subtle cues and change my approach to life accordingly, and how much I am mired in habits of thought I do not even recognize. But I hope–and I pray–that I will become more like Moses than like either the Israelites or the pharaoh. I’d like to wake up without being hit by either a disaster or a phallic symbol.

Va-eira: Shortness of Ruach

April 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Posted in Va-eira | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 10, 2010.)

And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, from kotzer of ruach and from avodah kashah.  (Exodus/Shemot 6:9)

Moses asks Pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves a leave of absence to spend three days in the wilderness worshiping their god.  Pharaoh responds by accusing the Israelites of laziness and giving them extra work: they must collect their own straw to mix with clay, and still make the same quota of bricks.  The slaves complain to Moses, who then complains to God that now the people are even worse off than before.  This week’s Torah portion,Va-eira (“And I appeared”), opens with God reaffirming the divine plan to rescue the children of Israel from Egypt.

Moses passes on this communication to the Israelite slaves, but they do not listen to him.  Why not?  The brief explanation ending the sentence in Exodus 6:9,  “from kotzer of ruach and from avodah kashah“, can be translated in many ways.  Below are some possibilities; pick one from each list to make your own translation.

kotzer = shortness.  being stunted.  despondency.  impatience.

ruach = wind.  spirit.  breath.  motivation.

avodah = labor.  service.  ritual.  worship.

kashah = difficult.  heavy.  stubborn.  severe.

Some translators choose a physical interpretation, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage (Robert Alter, following Rashi).  How can you listen to someone promising an unimaginable future when you’re working so hard that you’re panting?  Ramban says physical exhaustion made the people impatient and sapped them of the strength to hope.

Other translators take a psychological approach, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moses because of a constriction of the spirit (the Zohar) and because of the heathen service which weighed heavily upon them (the Targumim, according to Elie Munk).  Their suffering was so continuous that they were reduced to animals who could only think about their daily physical needs; they did not have enough human spirit to imagine anything else.  Lacking imagination and believing themselves powerless, they paid homage to the Egyptian gods of their slave-masters.  This idol worship also prevented them from listening to any communication from their own god.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, wrote:  “To hear is to open oneself up to vulnerability, change, contingency.”  Pharoah the hard-hearted cannot consider even the idea of change, so he refuses to hear out Moses.  Pharoah afflicts his Israelite slaves with the same deafness, by making their lives so hard that they cannot stop and listen to any revolutionary ideas.  Thus Egypt, which in Hebrew is called Mitzrayim, “Narrow Places”, is the place of constriction for both master and slave.  It is the place where people are stunted, cut short—“kotzer”—from the freedom of thought that make us human.

In Kabbalistic terms, the children of Israel are stunted in the ruach level of soul.  Like animals, they exist from day to day with only the nefesh, the level of soul that animates the body.  They have neither time nor energy to access their ruach and neshamah levels of soul.  (The neshamah is the soul level where one can hear one’s calling and receive inspiration.  The ruach is the level where one is seized by the drive and motivation to seek that calling, to do something new.)

In the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the ruach—wind or spirit—of God hovers over the face of the waters.  Throughout the Torah, certain humans are seized by the irresistible power of the ruach of God, which turns them into prophets or madmen, or perhaps both.  A human being’s own ruach may not be as enormous as God’s ruach, but it is still a motivating force that can be ignored only by rigorous denial.

Pharaoh is the king of denial.  He does not listen to the word of God because his ruach is stunted; he refuses to believe that change is unavoidable.  The children of Israel do not listen to the word of God because their ruach is imprisoned by continuous suffering; they refuse to believe that change can happen to them.

I’ve been in that constricted place, too.  I’ve cried over more than one unbearable situation in my life, unable to believe that I could do anything about it or that it would ever change.  But each situation did change.  Sometimes I heard a different inner voice, and I found a way out.  Other times the change happened without an action on my part, by the grace of God, and all I had to do was to respond, to gird my loins and go with it.

But what about when you’re still trapped in the suffering?  How do you find the voice you haven’t been hearing?  Does it take a temporary break—a deep breath, a real Shabbat, three days in the wilderness—to hear the voice of freedom?  Or do you need someone, or something, to lead you out of your Egypt whether you’re ready or not?

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