Sunday, January 29, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, February 4, 2017 Bo Go



Torah Readings for Saturday, February 4, 2017

Bo (Go)
10:1 - 13:16 Shemot (Exodus)
 
Bo is the third sedrah in the Book of Shemot (Exodus).  The Hebrew word “Bo” means “Go.”  The sedrah takes its name from the fifth Hebrew word in the first verse, “And the Lord said unto Moshe:  Go (Bo) in unto Pharaoh.”  Bo includes a description of the last three plagues, the Deliverance from Egypt, a series of laws including those relating to observing Pesach, Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) and the Redemption of the First Born.  Summarizing this sedrah is difficult because the material, as just described, does not always follow in a smooth narrative.  Rather, these items are dispersed throughout the text.  Also, the amount of material presented in the sedrah and its significance is almost overwhelming.  Bo marks the beginning of the significant rollout of the 613 Commandments.  The entire Book of Bereshit contains three commandments.  The sedrah of Bo, alone, contains 20 commandments.  The list of these commandments is at the end of this and subsequent weekly guides.  Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the source for the wording and numbering.
 
The Plagues
Even though some commentators have divided the plagues into 3-3-3-1, the Torah readings divide them into seven (Shemot) and three (Bo).  As we continue to see in our studies, the combinations of three, seven and ten are quite common, reinforcing the belief that these numbers have certain mystical “powers.”
 
Eighth Plague (10:1-20) - The Plague of Locusts follows the previous pattern with Pharaoh promising to obey God if the plague is lifted and then going back on his promise.
 
Ninth Plague (10:21-29) - The Plague of Darkness deviates from the pattern of the first eight.  The other plagues supposedly each lasted a week.  Darkness only lasts six days.  According to some the seventh day of darkness will come later at the Sea of Reeds.  The narrative of the ninth plague ends with Pharaoh threatening Moshe’s life.  He still stands haughty in the face of the Almighty.
 
Tenth Plague (11:1-9, 12:29-30) - The Death of the First Born is divided into two parts.  First comes the promise of the plague.  Then comes a description of the plague itself.  However, these two parts are separated by 25 verses pertaining to the observance of Pesach.
 
Rosh Chodesh (12:1-2)
The Commandment to Observe the New Moon is the second law given to the Hebrews.  It is the first commandment given to the entire Israelite nation.  This position of narrative primacy is probably an indicator of the importance of this commandment.  Additionally, since the Jews have spent most of their time living without a land, the calendar is of supreme importance because we have spent so much of our existence dwelling in the fourth dimension - the dimension of time.
 
The Deliverance From Egypt (12:31-42)
Pharaoh finally gives in.  He orders Moshe and Aaron to take the Israelites and leave.  In the sparest possible language the text describes the hurried departure of the Israelites carrying their unleavened dough and the wealth of Egypt.  Tradition states that 600,000 men plus their families departed Egypt.  Others have translated the word “elef” differently so that the number leaving is more like 6000 men plus their families.  Additionally, the Torah tells us that a mixed multitude departed with the Israelites.  These were probably non-Israelite slaves who took advantage of the chaos to leave Egypt.  According to some, this mixed multitude will stay with the Israelites until Sinai and the Golden Calf.  Regardless, their departure at the time of the Exodus can be interpreted as proof that freedom is for all people.
 
The Laws of Pesach (12:3-28) (12:43-51) (13:3-10)
The laws themselves are listed below in the section entitled “Commandments.”  The laws of Pesach can be divided into two parts.  The first set of laws addresses the behavior of the Israelites at the time of the first Pesach, the actual deliverance from Egypt.  Here we find the commands concerning the sacrifice of the lamb and dabbing the doorpost with blood.  The second set of laws covers additional requirements for observing Pesach for all time.  The laws are not mutually exclusive and are actually supportive.
 
Redemption of the First Born (13:1-2,11-15)
Since God spared the first born males of the Israelites, they now belong to Him.  Hence the law comes to us requiring their redemption.  This has given rise to the ceremony known as “Pidyon Ha Ben” or Redemption of the First Born.
 
Tefillin (13:16)
The Sedrah ends with one of those strange sentences that seem to have no connection with what has gone before or what is about to happen.  “And it shall be a sign upon your arm and ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt.”  This statement will give rise to the wearing of the Tefillin.  In other words, when one dons the Tefillin each morning he is performing another ritual that reminds us of the Exodus.
 
Themes:
Commandments
4.    The obligation to bless the new moon each month.  12:2
5.    The slaughtering and preparing of the Paschal lamb.  12:6
6.    The obligation to participate in the eating of the Paschal lamb.  12:6
7.    The prohibition against eating the Passover lamb raw or boiled; it must be roasted.  12:9
8.    The prohibition against leaving remains from the Paschal lamb.  12:10
9.    The requirement to remove chametz from one’s possession before the beginning of Pesach.  12:15
10.   The obligation to eat matzah during Pesach.  12:18
11.   The prohibition against having any chametz in one’s possession throughout Pesach.  12:19
12.   The prohibition against eating any food containing chametz during Pesach.  12:20
13 -14.  The forbidding of certain individuals to eat the Paschal lamb.  12:44
15.   The prohibition against removing any part of the Paschal lamb from the house in which it was first eaten.  12:46
16.   The prohibition against breaking any of the Paschal sacrifice’s bones.  12:46
17.   The stricture against an uncircumcised man eating the Paschal lamb.  12:48
18.   The command to redeem the first born.  13:2
19.   The prohibition against eating any chametz during Pesach.  13:3
20.   The stricture against chametz being seen in any Israelite dwelling during Pesach.  13:7
21.   The obligation to tell one’s child the story of the liberation from Egypt.  13:8
22.   The requirement to redeem a firstborn donkey.  13:13
23.   The obligation to break the neck of a firstborn donkey that is not redeemed.  13:13
 
Pesach
The term itself can be translated as pass over and has given rise to the English name for the holiday.  It is also the name of the sacrifice offered in observance of the holiday.  In reading the laws of Pesach, one can see the outline of the Seder and hear words found in the Haggadah.  Some of the practices that come from the laws found Bo include:
·        The observance of Pesach on the 14th of Nissan in the evening for seven days;
·        The Seder as a way of telling your children of the Exodus in a family environment;
·        The eating of bitter herbs and Matzah;
·        The placing of the Shank Bone on the Seder Plate;
·        The removal of chametz from our homes;
·        The eating of only Kosher for Pesach foods during the holiday; and
·        The Fast of the First Born.
(There may be more, but there are space limitations.)
 
Creation and the Exodus
These are the two seminal events in the Torah.  One marks the beginning of mankind; the other the beginning of the Jewish people.  We are reminded of this in the Shabbat Kiddush when we invoke the commemoration “of the work of creation” and the commemoration “of the exodus from Egypt.”  Also this explains how we can have more than one “new year.”  Rosh Hashanah comes in the seventh month but is the New Year.  It is the New Year marking the start of creation.  The month when Pesach is observed is the “beginning of the months…the first of the months for you” (12:2).  This is the “New Year” of the Jewish people.  The Exodus marks the beginning of the Jewish people as a unique nation.

Tefillin
The actual commandment concerning the wearing of Tefillin will come later in the Torah.  But in this sedrah we read “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as reminder on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (13:9).  This is an obvious reference to donning Tefillin.  We are being told that when we wear them we are doing so to remember the Exodus from Egypt.  Since donning Tefillin is one of the first things a Jew does every weekday morning, we can see that remembering the Exodus is a conscious act that should infuse our thoughts and behavior on a daily basis.

Pidyon Ha Ben
The ceremony for the Redemption of the First Born finds its origins in this sedrah (13:1-2).  The ceremony is really a rare one.  It must only be observed when a woman’s first born is a male.  If a daughter was born first or if there has been a miscarriage the ceremony is not performed.  Also, in the event of a cesarean birth, the ceremony is not performed because the commandment has to do with “the first issue of the womb.”  Finally, the ceremony is not performed when the first male issue is of the tribe of Levi.  The ceremony cannot take place until the youngster is at least thirty days old.  Usually the ceremonial table is set with Challah and a Kiddush cup.  The mother brings the youngster to the father and the Kohein, to whom the father has given five silver coins.  A highly stylized dialogue takes places between the father and the Kohein that includes a special Blessing of Redemption and a Shehecheyanu.  There is a legend I heard as youngster.  Because of the Exile, there was a sage who was not quite sure if those who claimed to be Kohanim really were in the purest sense of that term.  So every time he met a Kohein, he would go through the ceremony for his son just to ensure that at least one time it had been done right.

New Month/New Moon
There are two rituals connected with the lunar cycle.  The most commonly known one is Rosh Chodesh, the monthly mini-holiday.  Every month on the first day of the month (and some months we observe this for two days), Hallel is recited.  An extra section is added to the Amidah.  The Torah is read and Musaf is recited.  On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, there is a special Blessing of the New Month, when the leader announces the exact time when the upcoming month will begin.  There are no prohibitions against work on Rosh Chodesh.  According to some traditional sages (and they base this on Rashi) Rosh Chodesh should be regarded as a “mini-mother’s day honoring women for their superior piety by which the Jewish people is eternally recreated.”

The other is the less commonly known Kiddush Levanah or the Sanctification of the Moon which is performed at the actual sighting of the new moon.  Description of this highly stylized ritual which is based on the teaching of the Babylonian Talmud is not something that should be done by amateurs so here are two sites to look at for further information:  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blessing-the-new-moon/  and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm

The Tenth Plague
The Tenth Plagues is different in many ways from the other nine.  While the other nine are considered educational, the tenth is for punishment.  The tenth is to come at a stated time, around Midnight.  And the tenth requires active behavior on the part of the Israelites.  They must put blood on their doorposts and they must stay indoors.  The tenth plague also required an act of physical courage on the part of the Israelites.  They must take lambs ahead of time, days before the actual exodus.  But the lamb was sacred to the Egyptians.  By taking the lamb in this way, the Israelites were being asked to risk death at the hands of the Egyptians so that they could be part of the Exodus.  It is one thing to have faith.  It is quite another thing to lay it all on the line including risking your own life.

The Coming of the Messiah
The Exodus from Egypt is a harbinger for the ultimate redemption.  In the words of the prophet Micah, “Like the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will demonstrate wonders.”  As Rabbi Schneerson points out, “the deliverance from Egypt was a reward for the faith, which was…internalized by the Israelites.”  “So, too, will the future redemption be a reward for faith - the faith which disregards the great concealments of God that our exile brings, and which still holds firm to the belief in the Messiah.  A faith which does not hover at the outer edges of our minds but which constitutes our most inward certainty and extends to every facet of our being.”

Punishment
The Tenth Plague troubles many people.  “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh…to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone…” seems to be a very harsh punishment.  To the modern eye this seems to be punishing children for the sins of the parents, something later prohibited by Jewish law.  Also, it seems to punish the powerless along with the powerful.  This could spark a lively discussion should your Seder become routine or boring.

Visualizations
In her commentary on “Bo” entitled Sign on the Door, Fredelle Z. Spiegel points out the role that visualizations play in the final act leading up to the Exodus.  The Israelites were not just commanded to slaughter and eat the lamb, they were commanded to “take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it (the paschal lamb).”  Why were the Israelites to do this?  The popular answer is found in the second half of verse 13, “when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”  In other words, the Israelites needed to put the blood on so that God would know that they had identified themselves as His Chosen People.  But there is a second reason for this visualization, a reason that should affect our behavior today.  In the first half of verse 13 it says, “And the blood on the houses in which you dwell shall be as sign for you.…”  What does this mean that the blood will be a sign for you i.e., the Israelites?  By marking the doorposts, the Israelites were letting God know that these were Jewish homes.  They were letting the Egyptians know these were Jewish homes.  But most important they were reminding themselves that they were Jews living in Jewish homes.  Today we put a mezuzah on our doorposts.  The mezuzah does let the world know that Jews live in the house.  But more importantly, it reminds the Jews, as they kiss it on the way in and out of the house, that this is a Jewish home and that they are Jews.  When parents adorn their homes with Jewish objects - Kiddush cups, seder plates, Chanukah menorahs and Jewish books - they are reminding their children that this is a Jewish home.  At the Seder, it is the visuals, the items on the table, that trigger the Children’s Questions that lead to the entire recitation of the Haggadah.  In the home, it is the visuals that trigger the children’s curiosity about their Jewish heritage.  Just as the Blood on the Doorposts reminded the ancient Israelites that, despite all the privations of slavery, they were still Jewish, so it is that when we enter our homes, touching the mezuzah with our fingertips, we are reminded that, regardless of what we have experienced that day in the secular world, we are still Jews tied to the Promise of Sinai and the ultimate Redemption.

Promises Made/Promises Kept
In Bereshit (Genesis), God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years before He would punish their masters and free them from bondage.  “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (15: 13, 14).  The book of Shemot (Exodus) opens with a description of the first part of the promise.  In this week’s portion we read the description of the second part of the promise including going free with great wealth.  “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.  The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people.” (11: 2, 3)  “The Israelite had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.  And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people…” (12:35).  The message to the our forbearers, and hopefully for us and our descendants, is that God makes promises and God keeps his word.

Passover Customs
For those of you who are looking for new ways to enliven your Passover celebration you might want to follow the custom of some Jewish communities in which the people would create dramatizations of the Exodus based on this week’s Torah portion, as part of their Pesach observance.  “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (12:34).  After their Seder, the Moroccan Jewish men would “rush out of the house and run up and down the street shouting, ‘In this manner our forefathers went out of Egypt, their kneading-troughs bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.’”  As part of their dramatization, Jews living in the region of the Caucasus Mountains would dress “in their festive best” for the Seder and the women would “adorn themselves with jewelry of all kinds” possibly as visual reminder of the gold, silver and clothing that the Egyptians had given the departing Israelites.

The Haggadah and Shemot
As we saw last week, the creators of the Haggadah relied heavily on the Torah as a source for the actual text.  “Maggid” - the lengthy portion that retells the story of the Exodus - includes several lines from “Bo.”  In explaining the reason for the Pesach sacrifice, the text says, “You shall say, it is a Pesach sacrifice for the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and He saved our houses; and the people bowed down and prostrated themselves.” (12:27).  In explaining the reason for eating Matzah, the text says, “And they baked unleavened bread from the dough which they had taken with them from Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay there; nor had they prepared for themselves any provisions for the way.” (12:39).  As the Seder moves forward toward the first Hallel, the Haggadah again uses the words of “Bo” to explain why “in every  generation” each of us should feel that we individually were freed from the Egyptian bondage.  “You shall tell your son on that day saying:  for the sake of this, the Lord did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (13:8).  And for those of you who are looking for “extra credit,” read the section of the Four Sons and see how much of that interplay comes from this week’s Torah portion.

Problem with translation
At the start of Chapter 11, God tells Moses about the coming of the final plague.  And then, according to the modern translations, He says, “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (11:2).  The term “borrow” implies that the items will be returned to their owners after some period of time.  But we know that there is no intention of returning these items to the Egyptians, so is this a case of God being disingenuous or deliberately misleading?  I think not.  A more literal translation says “Speak now in the ears of the people and let them request each man from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor vessels of silver and vessels of gold.”  The literal translation would seem to remove the moral ambiguity created by the use of the term “borrow.”  Why would the Egyptians acquiesce to such a request?  Possibly, because, unlike their king, they had come to fear the plagues and they might have viewed surrendering their values as a “bribe” that would bring them to an end.  Regardless of what the Egyptians thought, this was a fulfillment of a divine promise that they “would go forth with great wealth.”  These vessels of silver and gold will appear again in the Torah.  They are the material from which the Golden Calf is made.  Note that the command to “request” these items is sex-segregated.  According to later commentary, the men surrendered their valuables for the Golden Calf while the women kept theirs and gave them to be used in the building of the Tabernacle.  It is one of those examples of the higher level of spirituality which we attributed to women.

Sifting the Flour
There is so much going on this portion - so much action packed narrative, so many lessons to learn.  So, how do we begin to rank order them?  How do we, so to speak, sift this “flour” so we are left with Maimonides’ “finely sifted flour?”  For Rabbi Jonathan Sacks it would seem that the following three verses are of great importance since he uses them in three separate commentaries on “Bo.”

And when your children ask you, "What do you mean by this rite?" you shall say, "It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses." (Ex. 12:26-27)

And you shall explain to your child on that day, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." (Ex. 13:8)

And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, "What does this mean?" you shall say to him, "It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage." (Ex. 13:14).  These verses remind us of what is really important to Jewish survival and growth.  Taken together, they show that at the time of these great events, Moses was thinking of the future, not just savoring the present victory.  They show the importance of education and training for all children.  And it shows how we teach.  We teach and we learn with questions.  As the Nobel Prize winner’s grandmother would ask him when he came home from grammar school, “Did you ask good questions?”  As Sacks pointed out, teaching like this led to the creation by the Jews of the first compulsory education system (1st century) that included providing opportunities for orphans who did not the wherewithal to pay tuition.  While our ancient contemporaries were building pyramids, ziggurats and triumphal arches, Jews were creating an educational system.  It is this system, based, in no small part on these three strictures that has meant the Jewish people continue to thrive while our ancient contemporaries are consigned the musty dust bin of history.

Haftarah
46:13-28 Jeremiah

With so much to cover in the sedrah, we will keep this brief.  As one of three Major Prophets, Jeremiah is worthy of a lot of time.  He provides three of the haftarot for sidrot from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), so we will have plenty of time to give him his just deserts later on.

The Man:  Jeremiah lived at a time of great political and social turmoil during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.  He was active during the last days of the Southern Kingdom and lived through destruction of the Temple and the early days of the Exile.  He was born about 645 B.C.E. in small town outside of Jerusalem called Anatoth in the lands of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was part of a priestly family that had found favor with King David but was subsequently banished from Jerusalem by King Solomon.  So from his birth, Jeremiah appeared to be destined to play the role of the quintessential outsider.  The Jews of Jeremiah’s time were confronted with the challenge of Babylonia.  Jeremiah’s advice was to make peace with the Babylonians.  His advice was repeatedly ignored.  He was branded a traitor and imprisoned.  His life was threatened on more than one occasion and he suffered the indignity of having his writings burned before his eyes.  Jeremiah told the first exiles sent to Babylonia (pre-586) to become good citizens of their new home.  After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was taken to Egypt against his will.  According to some he died there under questionable circumstances.

The Message:  It is complex, multi-faceted and beyond what we can cover this week.  He is the reluctant prophet who chastises the people.  Some see him as the embodiment of harsh meanness and his name has come into the language in the word “jeremiad.”  But he was also a man who put a premium on social justice and ethical behavior.  He provided guidelines for identifying false prophets and is the prototype for those who are willing to challenge the military and foreign policy actions of their government while remaining a loyal citizen.  Considering events in the United States, this is an excellent example of the timelessness of the teachings of the TaNaCh.  Last, but not least, Jeremiah provided a message of hope when all that was going around him should have led to despair and hopelessness.  If you want to swim against the stream, Jeremiah will show you how.  More importantly, he will tell you when and why you should make the effort.

Theme-Link:  The sedrah tells of the humiliation of Pharaoh and the redemption of the Israelites from bondage.  In the haftarah, Jeremiah tells of the humiliation of a contemporary Pharaoh.  He is relating his message to the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. when the Egyptians were defeated by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar.  This is the same Nebuchadnezzar who will become King of the Babylonians and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  This brief haftarah then ends with a message of restoration for the Israelites.  It predicts a future redemption that will be even greater than the redemption from Egyptian bondage.

Copyright January, 2017 Mitchell A Levin 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, January 28, 2017 Va-ayrah And I appeared Rosh Chodesh Shevat


This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Shevat.  Two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scroll is for the regular weekly reading.  The second scroll is for the special reading for Rosh Chodesh.  See below for further explanation.
 
Torah Readings for Saturday, January 28, 2017
 
Va-ayrah (And I appeared)
6:2-9:35 Shemot (Exodus)
 
Va-ayrah is the second sedrah of the eleven that make up the book of Shemot (Exodus).  The sedrah takes its name from the first word of the second sentence of the weekly reading, “Va-ayrah” - “And I appeared” as in I (God) appeared.  The sedrah divides into two basic parts.  The first part (6:2-7:13) has been described as a “Divine Reaffirmation” or restatement by God giving the reasons for Moshe’s mission and the conditions under which it will be carried out.  The second part (7:14-9:35) describes the first seven of the Ten Plagues.  You may detect a note of hesitancy in this guide.  It is only fair to warn you that I find this a most difficult sedrah and I may leave you with more questions than commentary.
 
“Divine Reaffirmation” (6:2-7:13)
Etz Hayim, the Conservative Chumash, uses this term to describe the first part of the reading and it is as good a description as any other.  In part, the opening verses are an answer to Moshe’s question at the end of the last sedrah, “Lord, why hast thou done evil to this people?  Why then hast thou sent me?”  Va-ayrah actually begins with the statement “And God spoke to Moses.”  According to some commentators, the root of the Hebrew word for “spoke” carries with it the connotation of a rebuke.  In other words, in providing Moses with a repetition of the information presented in Shemot, He is rebuking Moshe for his apparent lack of faith.  At the start of this sedrah, God (Elohim) tells Moses that his name is now יְהוָה Adonai or the Lord (Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay or YHVH).  From now on, YHVH will be the divine name that speaks to Moshe.  God tells Moshe that he is the same God who had appeared to the Patriarchs, but that they did know Him by the name YHVH.  But we saw YHVH used in Bereshit so how do we explain this apparent contradiction?  (And now you begin to see why I have so much difficulty with this sedrah.)  The Patriarchs may have known of the name but they did not know its full meaning.  Only with the Plagues, the Exodus and the giving of the Torah do we finally see the full might and meaning of the name YHVH.  The text repeats God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron about approaching Pharaoh.  There is one of those periodic genealogies (6:14 - 6:30), although this one only contains a partial listing of the tribes including just the first three, Rueben, Simeon and Levi.  The list stops at this point because the whole point of the genealogy is establishing the connection of Moses and Aaron with the house of Jacob.
 
The First Seven of the Ten Plagues (7:14-9:35)
There are only two groups of people for whom the Plagues do not present a problem - those who accept the Bible literally and those who dismiss it as book of tales on par with the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood.  For the rest of us there are lots of questions with only partial answers.  What really did happen in Egypt?  What were the authors trying to tell us happened?  What message is there for us at the dawn of the 21st century in these Plagues?  The easy answer is that God sent the Plagues to establish His power and might, to prove that He was Master of the Universe.  This may be an easy answer, but hardly a satisfying one.  I do not intend to discuss each of the seven plagues since that would make the Guide longer than the Sedrah.  What follows are some random comments that might prove useful.  Commentators have provided structure to the Plagues.  They divide them as 3-3-3-1.  “The first three proved the existence of God; the next three proved that His providence extends to earthly affairs and that He is not oblivious to material matters and the next three proved that God is unmatched by any power.”  In each of the groups of three, the first two plagues are preceded by a warning and the third plague comes without warning.  It is as if the third plague is a punishment for not “heeding the message” in the first two plagues.  Also, the first warning comes to Pharaoh by the Nile and the second comes in his Palace.  At the end of each of the first five plagues, the commentators say that Pharaoh hardened his heart.  It is only with the subsequent plagues that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  (Yes, it is the plagues and the questions of free will that make this an even more difficult sedrah for me.)  I would suggest that you read the text closely to see that different words are used to describe Pharaoh’s specific response to each of the plagues.  The First Plague is the boldest of all, save for the Tenth.  By attacking the Nile, God attacks the very source of all Egyptian society.  The end of the plague and Pharaoh’s response are also not stated in the same way as they are with subsequent plagues.  At any rate, the sedrah ends with the seventh plague and Pharaoh as unyielding as ever.
 
Themes:
Women
In the genealogy in chapter six we see the rare mention of wives.  In verses 20, 23 and 25 we read that Amram married Jochebed, Aaron married Elisheba and Elazar married a daughter of Putiel.  Each of these women had an honored lineage of her own.  By mentioning them, it would appear that the Torah is trying to confer extra merit on at least one of their offspring.  Only those who have not read the text would claim that women are absent from our tradition.
 
Pesach
Three aspects of the Seder have their origins in this sedrah.  The first is the recitation of the Plagues.  The second is the Four Cups of Wine.  In 6:6-7, there are four promises of redemption.  “I shall take you out.  I shall rescue you.  I shall redeem you.  I shall take you.”  The Four Cups of Wine commemorate these four promises.  The third aspect is Elijah’s Cup.  In 6:8, the text reads “I shall bring you to the land.”  Some felt that this was a fifth promise so there should be five cups of wine.  Others said no, there were only four promises.  As an act of compromise, and since all such disputes will be settled with the coming of the Messiah which will be announced by the prophet Elijah, it was decided to put a fifth cup on the table, but not to drink it.  Instead it would be left for the prophet Elijah.  There may be other explanations for these customs but at least this provides a common point of departure for future discussion at your Seder or at Shabbat Torah study.
 
Marriage
According to the Talmud, when contemplating marriage one should consider the family of the future spouse.  For when you marry, you are not just joining your life with another individual.  You are becoming a part of that person’s family as well.  This is one of those many timeless teachings found in the Torah that speak across the ages to all generations.  According to Rashi, the origins for that teaching are found in this week’s sedrah (6:23).  The reading tells us the name of Aaron’s wife as well as the name of her father and brother.
 
Punishment
In Judaism, we believe that a warning should always precede punishment.  This view has been adopted in the world of modern employee relations.  We derive this concept from this week’s sedrah when Moshe, at God’s behest, warns Pharaoh about the plagues he will suffer if he does not free the Israelites.  Ezekiel, the prophet from whom we take this week’s haftarah, also has an interesting lesson on the subject of punishment.  If a person sees another doing the wrong thing and does not warn him, two things will happen.  God will punish the evildoer.  But He will also punish the person who failed to deliver the warning (3:16-18).  In modern times the entire concept of what is called progressive discipline centers around the question “Did you tell the person clearly and unequivocally what was expected?”  After all, how can you expect the person to perform if he or she does not know what is expected of him/herself?  Also, did the person know the consequences, both negative and positive, of his or her behavior?
 
Free Will
According to Judaism, we all have it.  But our past behavior inclines us toward our future behavior.  In responding to the first five plagues, Pharaoh chooses to do evil each time, so that with the subsequent plagues, his response is almost predictable.  His inclination to do evil is “second nature” to him now.  And in that sense, some commentators say, we find the meaning of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  Another view on this is the belief that all men have the free will to pursue their destiny.  This is an issue of major concern among the Pharisees who had a great deal to say on the topic.  In speaking of the Pharisaic view of this, the historian Josephus said, "They ascribe everything to fate without depriving man of his freedom of action."  This idea was expressed by Rabbi Akiba:  "Everything is foreseen (that is, predestined); but at the same time freedom is given."  Akiba, however, declared, "The world is judged by grace (neither by blind fate nor by the Pauline law), and everything is determined by man's actions (not by blind acceptance of certain creeds)."  Two other Rabbinic comments on the tension between free will and predestination are, "All is decreed by God except fear of God" and "Man may act either virtuously or viciously, and his rewards or punishments in the future shall be accordingly."
 
Name of the Divine
The shifting appellations for the name of God including Elohim, El Shaddai, and YHVH (6:3), require us to pay attention to how the terms are used in Hebrew.  The different names provide the basis for a significant school of Biblical interpretation known as “Higher Criticism.”  Simply put, these critics believe the different names for Ha-Shem are proof of multiple authors of the Torah; that they are proof that the Torah is compilation of legends from several different strains of forefathers that were smoothed into their current form by later editors sometimes referred to as redactors.  I suggest you read “Does Exodus VI,3, Support the Higher Critical Theory?” on pages 397 through 399 of the Hertz Chumash for a concise, highly literate treatment of this topic.  In talking of these critics, Hertz writes, “…all this wanton tampering with the text leads nowhere….  All suggestions of contradictions are merely due to an insufficient insight into the spirit and intent of Scripture on the part of the Higher Critics.”  In point of fact, the various appellations may be seen as God’s way of communicating different aspects of His divine presence to us.  Whatever your belief, when it comes to understanding the Bible, the question “What’s in a name?” is very significant indeed.  We will talk more about the “Yud Hay Vav Hay” format as we wend our way through the Torah. The name of Divine Being is the word we could not say and now we cannot pronounce.  Some say the essence of the name was a breath.  Could this be a way of telling us that the essence of divinity is silence?
 
Measuring Greatness
How does one measure one’s accomplishments?  What is the importance of lineage?  A line from this sedrah has given rise to numerous stories that provide illumination on this topic.  “These are the heads of their houses…” (6:14) introduces a description of the lineage of Aaron and Moses.  Among Jews the term for this kind of pedigree is Yichus.  Unfortunately, some people who come from a long line of scholars or rabbis, etc. become overly impressed with their own accomplishments and fail to appreciate the accomplishments of their fellow Jews who come from humbler beginnings.  The gist of a whole raft of those folk tales is that a Jew with Yichus should be humble in assessing his or her accomplishments because until their deeds and learning surpass that of their illustrious ancestors they really have nothing to brag about.  However, there is a countervailing notion.  Just because a person is born with Yichus does not mean he will accomplish anything.  If a person is not supposed to blame his parents for his shortcomings, then he should not have to give them credit for his accomplishments.  For example, both Absalom and Solomon shared the same Yichus.  They were the sons of King David.  But one is remembered as a vain, selfish rebel while the other is remembered as the ruler who built the Temple and helped enrich our religious literature.
 
Whose Counting Counts
In this week’s reading, Va-ayrah, we read about the seven plagues.  In next week’s reading, Bo, we read about three more plagues.  This makes for ten plagues.  The sages seemed to have accepted this count.  In the Haggadah, Rabbi Jose, the Galilean, uses the ten plagues in Egypt as proof that there were fifty plagues at the Red Sea.  The Egyptians said that the ten plagues were the “finger of God.”  God showed “His Hand” at the Red Sea.  If a finger is worth ten, then a hand (five fingers) is worth fifty plagues.  However, the Bible offers different counts.  While the book of Shemot (Exodus) says there were ten plagues, the Book of Psalms offers two other counts.  The author of Psalm 78 refers to the plagues in recalling the “past mercies” that God has shown His people (78:43-51).  However, his plague count is seven, not ten.  Also, the order in the two versions is different although both start with Blood and end with The Death of the First Born.  The author of Psalm 105, who was probably writing for the remnant of Jews who had returned from the Babylonian exile, uses the plagues as one example of how God has (and therefore will again) help a small group to overcome adversity (105:27-36).  This author uses eight plagues, not ten.  While he ends with the Death of the First Born, he begins with Darkness and then lists Blood.  What is the significance of these discrepancies?  It is not the first time different books of the Bible have offered different information.  Consider how differently the anointing of Solomon is described in Samuel and Kings, on the one hand, and in Chronicles, on the other hand.  Are the versions in Psalms an example of poetic license?  The references in Psalms demonstrate one thing - the Story of the Plagues and therefore of the Exodus - were well known to the Israelites from a very early date in Jewish history.  This would seem to strengthen the argument that regardless of the historical accuracy of the actual events described in the opening chapters of Shemot (Exodus) a departure from Egypt by our ancestors is grounded in some level of reality.
 
Stopping at Seven
Why does the portion end with the seventh plague?  Is there something magical about the number “Seven,” as in the Seven Days tied to Creation?  Commentators like Ibn Ezra and Rashbam find the answer in the words of the last two verses of the reading.  After the rain, hail and thunder stopped, Pharaoh “sinned yet more and hardened his heart.   Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go” (9:34-35).  Unlike the previous plagues, there is no admission of guilt by Pharaoh with this plague.  Instead he increased his sin while stiffening his resolve against the Israelites, which the commentators say means that after the seventh plague Pharaoh was not just sinning, he was “enjoying his sin.”
 
Accuracy and Honesty
These continue to be troubling issues as we go through the second book of the Torah.  In Chapter 9, verse 3, Pharaoh is told that the Egyptian livestock will be struck “with a very severe pestilence” (NJPS) or “a very grievous murrain” (OJPS) if he does let Hebrews go to worship God.  Pharaoh did not comply and, “all the livestock of the Egyptians died.”  Then comes the plague of Hail in which the Egyptians are told to shelter their livestock unless they want them to die.  “Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word…brought their livestock indoors to safety” (9:19).  If “all the livestock” was destroyed in the fifth plague where did the livestock come for the seventh plague?  One said that the term “all’ was really an exaggeration and the author meant “most” or some such other great measure.  Another commentator indicates that “all” means “all” and that the cattle in the seventh plague were ones that the Egyptians bought from “foreigners in the land.”  Both of these answers seem to beg the question.  One possible explanation is that there was a great deal of time between each of the plagues, but the text does not say that.  As to the Honesty, Moses keeps asking Pharaoh to give the Israelites time off from work to go pray to their God.  But God has already told Moses that He plans on freeing the Israelites.  How do we explain this disconnect?  If we don’t, there are those who will say that Pharaoh was right to deny Moses’ request because he sensed that he was not telling the truth.  Of course Pharaoh would not have acquiesced to a request to free the Israelites, but that is another matter.  Why then didn’t Moses just tell the Egyptian King what he wanted from the start?  I am sure that “Rashi’s proverbial 5 year old daughter” knows the answer so I hope she will share it.
 
Reassurance from the Plagues
According to a Rabbinic tale, much to the consternation of the local peasants a Jew had acquired several head of cattle.  As was the custom of the place, the Jew took his cattle to the common green so that they could graze.  The peasants drove his stock off declaring that no Jewish cattle would feed on the common in their village.  The Jew was forced to drive his little herd up into the hills where they could forage for food.  One day bandits attacked the town.  In the course of their looting and pillaging, they slaughtered the cattle, butchered the beef and took it with them.  The peasants were beside themselves with grief.  What would they do for milk, cheese and butter?  How would they ever have meat to eat again?  At that very moment, the Jew came down the road into the town square driving his cattle, which had been in the hills before him.  The town was saved because as it says in this week’s sedrah about the plague of cattle disease, “But of the cattle of the Children of Israel, not one died” (9:6).
 
Moses in Egypt and the IDF in Gaza
As they moved into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces warned the Arabs that they were coming.  In some instances they reportedly placed phone calls telling the people to evacuate because the area in which they were living would be coming under attack.  They urged those who were innocent civilians to move away from the Hamas fighters so that they would be not wounded or killed in the upcoming attacks.  A precursor of this strange behavior, willingness to sacrifice the element of surprise to save lives, can be found in this week’s Torah portion.  In chapter 9, before the Plague of Hail, God instructs Moses to warn the Egyptians in the following words:
 
“18 ‘Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now.  19 Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.'  20 He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; 21 and he that regarded not the word of the LORD left his servants and his cattle in the field.”
 
The death and destruction of war, like the death and destruction that came with the plagues, are horrible things to behold.  Neither the IDF nor God is looking for corpses.  God is saying “let my people go” while the IDF is saying “let my people live.”
 
A Deepening Relationship
The relationship between God and Moses is tested for the first time.  Moses has failed in his initial attempt to negotiate with Pharaoh.  Not only has he not gained freedom for the Israelites, he actually has worsened their condition.  Moses does not throw in the towel.  More importantly, God does not respond with the kind of anger we will see with the episode of the Golden Calf.  Instead, he provides Moses with reassurance and helps to reinvigorate the great Prophet for the work that lies ahead.  It would appear that the Torah is providing us with paradigm for teaching and for comforting those who are weighed down by the challenges of life.
 
Moses and Aaron
The behavior of this duo is a puzzler.  The text says that Aaron is the “Prophet” for Moses.  Did Pharaoh think that Moses was, like him, a divine being in human form?  This might account for the fact that Pharaoh did not take Moses seriously.  Then, as one of my students asked, what language did Moses speak?  Did Aaron serve as the interpreter between these two dueling leaders?  And then there is the unanswered question of how Aaron felt playing a secondary role to his younger brother?  We can pursue this issue of “sibling rivalry” when we get to the Golden Calf.
 
Second Scroll:  Special Reading for Rosh Chodesh Shevat
28:9-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)
 
Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future preservation.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have special meaning for women.  There are some sages who suggest that wives and mothers should be presented with gifts on this, their holiday.  In lieu of gifts, others suggest giving Tzdekah in their honor.  The month of Elul is a Two Day Rosh Chodesh.  The first day actually falls on the last day of the month of Av.  When Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, as it does this year the special Torah reading only covers verses 9 through 15 of the 20th chapter of Numbers.
 
Haftarah - Special for Rosh Chodesh
66:1-24, 66:23 Isaiah
 
The Man:  The reading is the entire last chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  This is one of the chapters attributed to the Second Isaiah or the Isaiah of the Exile.  We know nothing about the biography of this anonymous author.  He (or she for the matter) lived during the last days of the Babylonian Exile.  There are only two things we know with any surety.  First, this person was a skillful author who could really turn a phrase.  Second, this person was humble, allowing his writings to be attached to those of the historic prophet Isaiah.  This kind of humility is a highly valued trait in Judaism.  For example, at the Seder, the Haggadah includes the words of Joshua reminding us that originally our ancestors were pagans.  In Rabbinic writings, such as Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), sages will attribute their words to those of their teachers, giving them credit for any learning they might have acquired.  “Imagine a world where people were more concerned doing the work than getting credit for doing the work.”  (Author unknown).
 
The Message:  Isaiah offers words of comfort as he describes the ultimate destruction of the nations who have made war against Israel.  Yes, God will gather in the exiles and the Temple will be rebuilt.  But in the opening verses, Isaiah reminds the people that holding Jerusalem is not enough.  God demands that we follow His laws.  “But it is to this that I look:  to the poor and broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.”
 
Theme-Link:  Usually the prophetic portion has a connection with the Torah portion.  This is one of the exceptions when the prophetic portion is tied to an event on the calendar - in this case Rosh Chodesh.  Verse 23 which is read and then re-read connects the observance of Rosh Chodesh to the final redemption.
 
Shevat is the eleventh month counting from Pesach and the fifth month counting from Rosh Hashanah.  Shevat has only one holiday.  On the 15th of Shevat, Jews observe a minor festival called Tu bi-Shevat also known as the New Year of the Trees.  Many observe it with a special Seder that includes foods from Eretz Israel.  For several decades it was the focal point for the annual JNF tree drive complete with its ubiquitous Tree Certificate.  Shevat is mentioned by name only once in the Bible - in Chapter 1, verse 7 of the Book of Zechariah, “Upon the four and twentieth day of the eleventh month, which is Shevat.”  This is the beginning of Zechariah’s prophecy about the rebuilding of the Temple in the days of the Persian Empire.  According to the Torah, Moses began the discourses known as Devarim (Deuteronomy) on the first day of Shevat.  “And it came to pass in the fortieth year in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month that Moses spoke unto the children of Israel…” (Deut.1:3).  For Lubvaitchers, Shevat is a month of mixed messages.  The Tenth of Shevat is the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the 6th Rebbe who passed away in 1950.  The Tenth of Shevat (1951) marks the assumption of leadership by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the 7th Rebbe.  From a personal note, the 2nd of Shevat is the Yahrzeit of Reb Zusha, a gentle kindly soul about whom wonderful stories are told.
 
Shevat and Pesach
16th of Shevat, 5238:  On January 29, 1478, “The Washington Haggadah,” the creation of Joel Ben Simeon was completed.  “In addition to the full text of the Passover night liturgy, the Washington Haggadah features stunningly intricate illuminated panels and a series of Passover illustrations that include depictions of "The Four Sons," "The Search for Leaven," and "The Messiah Heralded."  The enduring popularity of Joel ben Simeon's miniatures is reflected in the many reproductions of his work that have appeared over the years in anthologies of Jewish art and manuscript painting.  In 1991, the Library of Congress published a facsimile edition of the Washington Haggadah, accompanied by a companion volume with a detailed scholarly description, analysis, and assessment of the manuscript.”
 
Musical Shevat
19th of Shevat, 5722:  On January 24, Brian Epstein signed a contract to manage The Beatles establishing the “Jewish connection” with the FAB 4 who some consider the most influential and best known music group of the 20th century.
 
Solemn Shevat
18th of Shevat, 5746:  On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, killing all seven crew members including Judith Resnik, “the first American Jewish astronaut in space.  Resnik joined the space program in 1978 after graduating from Carnegie-Mellon with a B.S. in electrical engineering and the University of Maryland with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  Prior to the 1986 Challenger tragedy, Resnik served as the mission specialist on Discovery's maiden voyage in 1984, logging 144 hours 57 minutes in space.  Resnik was the second American woman in space (after Sally Ride) and the fourth worldwide.  Before joining the space program, Resnik worked in the radar division of RCA, as a biomedical engineer in neurophysics at the National Institute of Health, and finally for the Xerox corporation.  She was accepted into the NASA program, along with five other women, in 1978.  An Akron, Ohio, native, Resnik was a classical pianist and a gourmet cook, and also enjoyed running and bicycling.  She was active in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the IEEE Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Association of University Women.”
 
 
Copyright; January, 2016; 2017 Mitchell A. Levin