Double Mitzvah – Va’eira

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Gary Rozman. Gary, a first-time Jewrotica writer, teaches subjects ranging from history to horticulture at the NYC Parks Academy. He’s also an inter-faith wedding officiant. A native of Ukraine, he currently resides in Rego Park, Queens, with his husband and Basset hound.

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Shemot.

Rated PG

Va’eira needs little introduction. The Exodus story is firmly embedded in the zeitgeist and has influenced everything from finger puppets to The Far Side. But as familiar as it is, its relevance to relationships is not immediately apparent. What is religion, though, if not the study of relationships? One might say that we’re defined as a species by the ability, for better or worse, to engage with one another in ways that surpass the merely ecological relationships of life on Earth. Religion, therefore, provides a systematic guide to getting through the chaos that lies beyond the tidy order of predator and prey.

Speaking of ecology, the science major in me automatically defaults to empiricism and causality in attempting to explain the Hand of God at work, and in this week’s parsha (6:2-9:35), He’s working overtime.

It begins with a little genealogy, and although some of the longevity cited is quite miraculous, things don’t really begin to pop until the plagues. At this point in the tale, Moses and Aaron have been commissioned to deliver the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. But Pharaoh refuses and thus we get blood, frogs and other enticements. The first seven of ten total are recounted, and I’m quite fond of the various attempts to ascribe their occurrence to natural phenomena. Indeed, there’s a plausible progression: increased algal concentration might redden a river while simultaneously providing fodder for frogs, driving up their numbers. Such a large population would, in turn, quickly exhaust the food supply and die out, giving their lice-like natural prey a chance at resurgence. There’s every possibility that a large enough swarm of locusts would temporarily block out the sun, and even hail becomes more credulous in light of the latest meteorological observation.

Such musings make for excellent intellectual exercise, but they fail to convey morality. Digging deeper through the reading one stumbles upon an interesting paradox: though the plagues work, they’re largely superfluous. Setting aside the fact that G-d, theoretically, doesn’t require show of strength to redeem his people (or, for that matter, a redeemer) we are still left with the perplexing question of why, time and again, he stymies His own efforts. In relaying instruction to the brothers, the Lord states,

“… I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…” (7:3)

It’s like saying, “Go ask, but I’ll make sure the answer is no.” It’s blatantly-stated sabotage, and an apparent refutation of the promise made in the very same breath. Elsewhere, Pharaoh, after being smitten with boils, the sixth plague, is seemingly willing to release the Hebrews at last. But,

“…the Lord strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not hearken to them.” (9:12)

What gives? Why send Moses on a fool’s errand, let the slaves languish and unnecessarily keep punishing the Egyptians with a diplomatic solution in sight? I posit that the heart of our parsha speaks to one of the most fundamental relationships described in the Bible: the Creator to his creation. This is wild speculation on my part, but it may be the clearest example yet of what some scholar’s see as the solution to a metaphysical riddle: what need would an omnipotent being have with a rag-tag bunch of scurrying Homo sapiens? “Need” itself could be the answer. He can have anything He wants, but without the existence of some other being to do the desiring, He cannot have the feeling of be desired.

By definition, external affection (or dependence, fear and so forth) cannot be supplied internally. G-d as object is the goal here, and in Va’eira He goes to great lengths to ensure His message is clear: “You need Me.” So we have a repetition to the point of absolute clarity. With one plague, or with two or three or even four, doubt may linger. But ten! Any fewer and skeptical Hebrews may have credited a weak-willed Pharaoh, or chance, for their freedom. But only G-d can sway even most hardened tyrant, regardless the origin of his resistance. Not to mention, “10” makes for a memorable addition to any story arc (and in a neat literary trick, the plagues foreshadow another round number just a few chapters on).

Much has been made of this parsha. There are countless commentaries on the slave narrative, a condition that transcends the Torah and touches on all mankind (attracting much renewed attention of late),but we can wait to celebrate liberation and renewed life later, at the Seder table in the spring. One can even, if so inclined, hear why the first plague is an allusion to the female gender, along with a meditation on the gematria of the Hebrew word for “frog.”

For now, let’s circle back to our original premise and see if we can’t impart key concepts to our interactions with others. I think one important takeaway is that there is ample opportunity in this world to alleviate suffering. Unlike the Almighty, though, our motivation to do good need not come from threat of unparalleled, crushing solitude. We feel kinship and love for others, not a substantiation of our existence. As such, we are free to show kindness without strings. Unfortunately, this ability – this blessing – has become obscured for many of us. We play hard to get and expect reward for our actions when we ought to give unreservedly. How often is personal gain the underlying impetus for actions that appear altruistic? Even in this season of giving, a hidden sense of smug satisfaction often compels the exchange of presents. Sadly, we forget that a mitzvah is performed for its own sake.

I’m reminded of a recent episode of a favorite podcast, Modern Day Philosophers, during which the host thanked donors and graciously offered to mentioned their names on the program. I thought immediately to Maimonides’s eight levels of charity, and his injunction to give without expecting recognition or thanks. How much more noble would it be, as we make those last few tax-deductible contributions of the year, to forgo our egos and refrain from adding our names to the crawl on the screen? (Incidentally, if you like to tickle your intellect – and if you’re reading this I assume you do – take a listen to the show. Philosophy is, of course, just another GPS device to help us navigate this wild ride, both companion and counterpart to religion, and Danny Lobell is a mensch that makes it funny.)

If you continue on with your weekly readings (or if you’re a Cecil B. DeMille fan) you’ll learn that (temporary) resolution is in store for the Twelve Tribes. G-d’s tactics are severe and come at a cost, but they work to seal the Covenant, and secure the Jewish people’s place as His emissaries on Earth. For us mere mortals, it’s compassion that’s more crucial than covenant. Remember: we have the power to perform miracles, and pestilence need not be among them.

Good Shabbos!

Gary Rozman teaches subjects ranging from history to horticulture at the NYC Parks Academy. He's also an inter-faith wedding officiant. A native of Ukraine, he currently resides in Rego Park, Queens, with his husband and Basset hound.