Some Thoughts on Vaera and the First Four Plagues

This is a text of a d’var Torah I gave at Altshul on January 25, 2020 

 

 

First, I want to say that I am so glad my family joined altshul a year and a half ago. The generosity and kindness of this community is amazing. I feel lucky to be a part of it and to get to say a couple of words today.

This week, we begin the plagues. Reading them this year, I was struck by their structure, their slow reveal, and I want to take some time to look at that aspect of them, especially as it plays out in the first four plagues.

We begin with God telling Moses to tell Aaron to act. He raises his staff and first turns the rivers to blood, then brings forth frogs. Aaron does this, but remarkably, Pharaoh’s magicians do the same.  It is a sort of tit for tat, between God’s actor, Aaron, and Pharaoh’s, the magicians, with neither getting the upper hand.

Then in the third plague, Aaron brings forth from the dust, lice. Here, the magicians cannot follow. Instead they proclaim that surely this is the work of God.

Only now, in the fourth plague, does God himself act – there’s no Moses, no Aaron, just God. He brings forth the wild animals, perhaps the most mysterious of the plagues. And for the first time, God declares that he will protect his people, that the horde, the wild animals, whatever they might be, will not descend on Goshen, where God’s people live.

Tradition tells us that the Jews suffered from none of the plagues. But why is God’s protection only articulated here in the fourth plague? And for that matter, why is it only here, well into the action, that God alone brings forth a plague?

Rashi tells us that Moses did not take part in the first three plagues because of his personal relationship with the river. But that doesn’t explain why we have to wait to the fourth plague for God to take center stage.

Perhaps to explain this it’s helpful  to think of the plagues as revelation of God’s power and omnipotence, not only to the Egyptians, but to the Jews as well.

We know the plagues can be broken into three sets of three, with the final plague standing alone in its horrible power. The first three show God’s existence, the second three, his providence over the earth, and the final three, his omnipotence. When Aaron is acting under God’s direction, he is also publicly confronting Pharaoh’s magicians. Does the God Moses speak of exist? Will he really save the Jews from bondage? Moshe says so, but when Aaron turns the Nile to blood, so do the magicians; when he raises the frogs, they do the same.

The tension builds.

But then Aaron raises the lice and the magicians are awed – they are in fact the first non-Jews in Exodus to admit God exists. Right after, God himself takes over and makes clear that he alone holds these powers over the earth. He directs the horde of wild animals towards the homes of the Egyptians and for the first time, states that he will protect his people in Goshen.

Here is God, finally taking direct control. And here is God, not Moses, and not Aaron, defining who his people are and assuring them that he will protect them.

Why does this take so long?

As a friend’s son asked, why doesn’t God just teleport the Jews out of Egypt?

Surely if the Jews were to suddenly disappear, the Egyptians would be awed. But perhaps the Egyptians alone are not the audience here. Perhaps we too are the audience, and we are the ones who need to be shown, and reminded not once, but twice every year, that God is greater than human tricks, and that God alone decides who is, and isn’t, among his people.

 

Some Quick Thoughts on the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, and Chavrusa Learning

Mishneh Torah – Talmud Torah
Maimonides

In March, my friend Noah asked me if I’d like to learn some Torah with him. Of course I said yet. By Torah here Noah meant the expansive sense of the word, covering texts of religious importance to Jews. After some back and forth, we settled on learning Maimonides (aka the Rambam) laws for the Study of Torah or Hilchot Talmud Torah from the Rambam’s massive Mishneh Torah. We did this in the tradition way of Chavrusa, working together line by line, to analyze the Rambam’s distillation of the laws governing the study of Torah in great, great detail. Noah read the text in Hebrew, I in English and we discussed and debated both the large themes the Rambam was presenting and the smallest apparent logical inconsistency in the text. We did this, just about every shabbat morning, for the last nine months.

Finally, just recently, we finished. It was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Noah is deeply knowledgeable about the Rambam. Me, not so much. Noah brought a lifetime of deep Torah study and a brilliant intellect. I think I brought some fresh perspectives and a willingness to ask stupid questions to the conversation.

Seeing very up close the care with which the Rambam codified these rules for study was a revelation and while I still don’t always agree with the great man, I’m more impressed than ever with the clarity and care that went into creating this massive, yet minutely constructed work.

As for the form of reading this – hyper closely, debating every line, while our children played in the background — it was a joy. There were many mornings when I didn’t want to get up and get over to Noah’s place, but after every session, I felt invigorated. Its an incredible way to start the day.

Recommended (the text for Jews and others interested in a detailed articulation of the rules governing Torah study) and the practice of Chavrusa for everyone.

Maimonides-2

Maimonides (aka the Rambam)

Interesting Gers: Sammy Davis Jr.

God, what a life. Born in Harlem to a vaudeville performer, Davis faced physical and verbal abuse in an integrated army unit, returned to the states to become first a popular cabaret singer, and eventually, one of the most famous entertainers in the world and for many, many years a lightning rod in America’s discussions around race. Along the way, he converted to Judaism.

As the story goes, Davis was friends with the Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, who gave Davis a mezuzah as a present. Instead of affixing it to his door, as Jewish law dictates, he wore it around his neck like a necklace. One night, Davis forgot to wear the necklace, and was involved in a horrific car accident in which he lost an eye and was hospitalized. While recuperating in the hospital, he read Sachar’s History of the Jews and spoke with Cantor about the similarities between the plight of the Jewish people and African Americans.   Moved by the endurance of the Jews, and perhaps for other private reasons, he converted in 1961.

I haven’t found much about Davis’s conversion – I don’t know if it was reform, conservative or orthodox. When Davis talked about his faith it was often in a joking manner (“You think you’re discriminated against? I’m a short, one-eyed black jew.” Or “I tried to sit in the front of the bus but the driver said ‘you’re black, get in the back’. I told him I was Jewish and he said ‘get off’”). Serious reflections on faith were few.

Later, Davis would flirt with Anton LaVey’s  the Church of Satan. How seriously, I don’t know. Nor do I know, frankly, how serious he took his Judaism. But he is, without a doubt, an interesting ger.

See all the interesting gers here. 

Some thoughts on Shabbat and Cathedrals in Time

The Sabbath, something E and I in our own way have been attempting to honor. We light candles, we say Kiddush,  but we’re not shomer shabbas (though I did schedule this posting, so it isn’t like I’m blogging on Shabbos!), and we don’t always get the candles lit by sundown.

Still, you do what you can do.

What I think about shabbos, I think about Abraham Joshua Herschel writings on the subject, especially his image of the Sabbath as a cathedral in time resonated with me. One of the things that distinguishes Judaism from Catholicism is the portability of the religion, that celebration and observance are not dependent on the presence of a priest or of the building of a church. Ten Jews and a torah and you’re good to go.

This portability definitely comes in part from oppression, from anti-Semitism, and from having to hide. But Judaism is also a religion of abstraction, of ideas and history and words. Ritual is an important component, but few of those rituals depend on being within a specific place. Judaism is a religion you can take with you. Did the abstraction and heavy reliance intellectual thought that I associate with Judaism today develop because of oppression, or in addition to it? I have no idea, I’m no Jewish historian. At least not yet.

But the ability to take the religion with you and hold the ceremonies wherever one could has resonated throughout my Jewish education. In part through the writings of those like Herschel. But I’m also reminded of a miniature torah scroll the rabbi brought  to my conversion class.  Little more than a foot and a half tall, it was the smallest Torah scroll I had ever seen. Rabbi’s cousin had bought it at a flea market in Japan of all places, and had spent thousands having it restored. It was a pretty special thing. From analyzing the way the scribe had formed the letters, they had been able to discern that the Torah had originated somewhere in Eastern Europe about a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and that the scribe was either from, or had been trained by someone who was from, Czechoslovakia. Yeah, apparently they can track it down to that level of detail. Amazing. It was a beautiful object and an important thing, I felt honored to be able to be so close to it.

As I stood there in class, staring at this Torah Scroll and trying to imagine the journey it had taken from East Europe to Japan, I was moved by this religions ability to migrate, to protect and to create little cathedrals in time all over the world.

Interesting Gers: Jamaica Kincaid

This week’s interesting ger is Jamaica Kincaid, African American novelist, big time gardener, and convert to Judaism.

Kincaid, who is probably most famous for her novels Lucy and Annie John, hasn’t spoken much in public about her conversion. I read a number of pieces by Kincaid in college, but never once heard she was Jewish until I started doing research for this project.  It seems to be a personal issue for her and she’s been quoted as saying “I don’t know why, but I do feel that God is a private issue.”

I believe, like Martha Nussbaum, Kincaid’s conversion arose because of her marriage to a born Jew, in this case, Allen Shawn (of the famous in Manhattan Shawn family), but I could be wrong.

Though Shawn and Kincaid have divorced, Kincaid is still active in her Reconstructionist Shul in Vermont, reading her work at various services. Somehow it seems fitting that a woman who has had a life as interesting as Kincaid’s finds herself at home in a congregation which has an interesting history of its own.

Interesting Gers: Martha Nussbaum

Almost five years ago now, I converted to Judaism. I did so because of a complex set of personal reasons including spiritual growth, intellectual development and love. When I was going through the conversion process, I gazed at my own navel a lot on a now defunct blog where I also wrote a couple of pieces about other who converted. The reasons I converted are complex and personal. I’m might rehash them here one day, but not today. Today, I’m going to share an edited version of one of a series of posts I wrote examining the lives of other converts, or as they are sometimes known “Gers/Gegiyoret”.  Here’s one.

Let’s start with Martha Nussbaum, one of the most important political philosophers working today. If you follow contemporary thought, you know who she is. Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago, has written a number of books, including the must read Sex and Social Justice*, and writes on current political issues for the New York Review of Books and other periodicals. She is one of American’s few, true “public intellectuals”. Some people I respect dislike her, usually because of her takedown of Judith Butler.**  Her grounding in classical thought and her ability to teach philosophy in a legal theory setting make her one of my intellectual heroes. And whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit she is ridiculously smart.

She is also a ger.

It is not easy to find information on Nussbaum’s conversion. It would seem that, like many converts, she originally converted at least in part for love when she married Alan Nussbaum. However, long after she and Alan Nussbaum divorced, she stayed involved in Judaism. In fact, she had her bat mitzvah relatively in 2008.

At her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum gave a d’var Torah. Here is an excerpt:


As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. . .  So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.

You can read the whole piece here.

Nussbaum hasn’t shared the exact reasons for her conversion, though she has been quoted as saying she had “an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them”*** and that she had “kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion in which justice was done in this world.” Both interesting, and I think political reasons for conversion. I have no idea why she chose to have a bat mitzvah in her sixties. I’d love to ask her.

Regardless of her reasons, her intelligence and sense of justice is a great addition to the Jewish community and she is certainly an interesting Ger.
*Nussbaum is also a player in one of the great gossip scandals of the intellectual elite. She was involved for many years with Cass Sunstein before Sunstein ran off an married Samatha Powers. That whole thing is a discussion for another blog.

** Which was, perhaps, mean spirited and with which I certainly disagree on some points. However, even those I know who hate Nussbaum must admit she also raised some pretty good points.

*** I’ll acknowledge that this is a very fraught reason for conversion. Is underdog status something we can just claim, or must it be given by those favored to win?