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)

Review: Friedman’s Who Wrote The Bible

Who Wrote the Bible

Richard Elliott Friedman

In the last couple of years, I’ve been making a real effort to engage more deeply with Torah study, and particularly with the weekly parshas.* This year, after coming across what seemed like a contradiction in Genesis, I asked a rabbi friend what to make of it. “Do you want the historical answer or the Talmudic answer?” he responded. “Both” I said.  We dug into how to square the apparent contradiction bases on the guidance of the ancient scholars, but he also told me to read this book if I wanted to understand more about the how historically the five books of Moses were constructed.

In a nut shell Who Wrote the Bible makes the argument that Five Books of Moses were written by four different authors – J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim) P (for Priest) D (for writer of Deuteronomy) and then constructed by another compiler. The various authors had differing perspectives and political goals in their drafting hence the contradictions and repetitions.

Friedman asserts that these authors were all individual people and my understanding is that now many scholars take issue with that and other conclusions Friedman draws here. But the general outline still holds. I’m relatively new to this subject myself, and found this to be a fascinating, if flawed, read. I’d be curious to hear from others out there who’ve read in this area about better works.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*For non-Jewish readers, the “Torah” can be defined broadly as Jewish religious texts or my accurately as the five books of Moses. Jews read the five books of Moses on a set schedule ever year, breaking the books down into weekly sections called parshas.

Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels

The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is one the most interesting scholars of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity working today. He’s also, usually, an incredibly dense and academic writer. I read, and loved, his book Borderlands, but I’m also not sure I understood it.

The Jewish Gospels is Borderlands for normal people. It posits the same hypothesis – that Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity developed, at least in part, in conversation and competition. When Paul was Saul he was a student of the school of Gamaliel, after all.

The time, and subject, covered here is of deep interest to me, but much of the writing I’ve found (especially that covering the Rabbinic side), often assumes a level of learning I do not have. Very pleased to have found this accessible book to give me a toe hold in this world.

If clear thinking on the early development of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism is of interest to you, I can’t imagine a better place to start.

Recommended.

Daniel Boyrain

Donin’s To Pray As A Jew

To Pray As A Jew: A Guide To The Prayer Book And The Synagogue Service

Hayim Halevy Donin

A detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the rituals and traditions of Orthodox Jewish prayer. Literally a handbook that takes you, moment by moment, through Shabbat and daily services, and prayer at home.

As I’ve written about here before, I’m a convert to Judaism and my wife and I have been more and more drawn to orthodox services. So if, like me, you’re interested in traditional and/or orthodox prayer, but get lost in the complexities, this is a very helpful, if dry, resource. There is little in the way of theology or spiritual discussion here, but much in the way of technical, clear instructions. For example, if you want to know exactly how to put on tefillin in the orthodox manner, this is for you. If you’re looking for a whether or not women should put on tefillin, this isn’t for you.

That said, though I surely disagree with the author on numerous points of practice, I found this very informative and helpful.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Brandes’ The Orchard

The Orchard

Yochi Brandes

A fictionalize portrayal of the life of Rabbi Akiva, told from the perspective of his loving, but long suffering wife.

Akiva is a luminary of early rabbinic Judaism and one of the central figures in the Talmud. He was, allegedly, a simple Shepard, who won the heart of the daughter of one of the richest men in Judea. At her insistence, he began the study of Torah while already in middle age and became one of the most importance forces in the development of Judaism, working to establish the cannon of the tanakh, the development of halakha and more. In this novel, he even comes into contact with the early strains of Christianity and is part of the development of early kabbalah. Eventually, he was tortured and murdered by the Romans for his support of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

According to the Talmud and associated stories, he was a humble, good, man, but it was not an easy life. Scores of sacrifices had to be made for his place as a Torah scholar and his wife bore the brunt of most of it. This is the story that is told here.

The writing is uneven, but perhaps that’s the translation. The story is compelling and at times, clever in how it centers Akiva and the other Tannaim in so many aspects of not only Judaism, but early Christianity. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and despite it being a work of fiction, learned quite a bit. The book assumes no knowledge of the Talmud, but I’m sure a deeper understanding that I have would have open up much more.

I do quickly want to note that the title refers to the story of four rabbis of the Tannaim visiting “the Orchard”. In this book, they do so using some sort of magic, and what they see, when they get there is some version of paradise, or the divine. It changes them all forever, killing one, driving another mad, sending one into blasphemy, and brining Akiva to a place as the most prominent rabbi of his generation.

Just trying to write a single paragraph on the Orchard story reflected back to me how little I understand the story, and the Talmud in general.

So much more to learn.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Rabbi Akiva

Boyrain’s Borderlands: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity


Borderlands: The Partition of Judeo-Christinaty
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is a genius and a personally fascinating scholar. A Talmudic scholar and an expert on rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, he’s also versed in what is generally called “theory” and rhetoric. He’s an observant Jew, and an anti-Zionist.  He’s also, I’m afraid to say, a complex and, frankly, difficult writer.

Those who know me know I’ve long had a simmering interest in the time that produced both the rise of Christianity and the developed of so called Rabbinic Judaism (i.e. ~30-300 b.c.e). This simmering interest in starting to deepen and, I think, may be the central part of my personal intellectual life for the foreseeable future. To get a sense of this world, and especially the inter-play between Judaism and Christianity in this time, I went to Borderlands, which everyone considers to be one of the central contemporary books on the topic.

I wasn’t prepared for what I found there, for several reasons.

First, I wasn’t prepared for the introduction to be a nuanced, compelling argument against the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza. I’d assumed that because Boyarin is an observant Jew, he was also at least a “soft” Zionist. He is not. Even if you care nothing about Boyarin’s scholarship, and whether or not you agree with Boyarin, this book is worth picking up for the careful and brilliant introduction alone.

After the introduction however, things get much more challenging. The central thesis, as I understand it, is that in the first hundreds years or so, C.E., as Judaism and Christianity developed, they did so in conversation and tension with each other — theology and practice was sometimes shared, and sometimes developed in stark opposition. Remember that the Judaism developed by the rabbis in this time was something new, not focused on the (now destroyed) temple in Jerusalem, but rather focused on the Torah and the Talmudic laws and commentary surrounding it. Similarly (and often in opposition, or reinterpretation of Judaism) Christianity was attempting to develop of cohesive theology out of the remembered teachings of an iterant Jewish messianic preacher, Jesus of Nazerth.

The thesis is fascinating, and to the degree I understood what Boyarin was saying, I was captivated. But the real talk is this is an academic book, and it assumes far more knowledge of Hebrew, the Talmud, and the early church fathers than I have.

For someone like me, interested in the subject, but far from an expert, it wasn’t the place to start. But even if I was lost and drowning at times, it was exciting to get a sense of what the deep end of the pool looks like. I’ll be back when I’m better able to swim.

Recommended for the (learned) enthusiast.

Daniel Boyrain

Book Review: Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation

Allan Lew

A meditation on the Jewish High Holidays by one of the most important reform rabbis of the last fifty years. A deeply honest and moving book. The most spiritually moving piece of literature I have read, maybe ever.

As close readers of this website know, I converted to Judaism a number of years ago. The reasons for that conversion are complex and personal and hard to explain. Since converting, my relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed. E and I have always attended high holiday services, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t always approached them with all that much awe. That’s changed in the last couple of years. It’s changed in part because my son now attends a Jewish school and we are now much more involved in a Jewish life. It changed because we became members of a powerful, progressive synagogue with an incredibly dynamic rabbi. And it’s changed in part because I am older, with a life more complicated and perhaps more in need of spiritual solace.

And it’s changed in part because of this book.

One of the things that initially attracted me to Judaism was the way in which it welcomes an engagement with the spiritual through the intellectual. This book is a wonderful reflection of that type of engagement. Lew takes you through the Torah’s proscriptions for the various holidays, he explains how our traditions and rules came to be, and why, but he never lets you forget that this is more than an intellectual exercise. It is more than an obligation. It is a complex apparatus designed to allow us to engage with ourselves (and for some of us, our God) is a real, visceral, and perhaps transformative way.

If you come to my synagogue for the high holidays, you’re going to see a variety of expressions of Judaism. You’ll see the egalitarian orthodox minyan. You’ll see the various kids services, in all degrees of wild, you’ll see bored teenagers waiting for it to end, and others with their heads deep in their siddurs. One thing you’ll also see is numerous people with this book beside them. Next year, once again, I’ll be one of them.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

 

Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army

The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Sue Fishkoff

“Excuse me sir, are you jewish?” If you live in New York and you look even remotely like an Ashkenazi jew, you’ve been asked this question. The people doing the asking are members Chabbad Lubavitcgh, the largest, most outwardly looking movement in Hasidic Judaism. This remains the best book in English on the movement.

That’s kind of unfortunate.

It isn’t that this is a bad book, it isn’t. It’s actually quite good. Fishkoff has the writing chops of the long time journalist. She interviews many of the important players (though, unfortunately, not the Rebbe himself) and she has a good grasp of the history of the movement (and of Hasidism in general). But she suffers a bit from the problem that effects many who write on social movements – she falls a bit in love with her subject.

At least she’s honest about this. Right from the start, she talks about how moved she was by the generosity of many she met in the Lubavitch movement. I appreciate that honesty. And I appreciate her acknowledgment of the scores of good deeds Chabbad does in reaching out to secular Jews across the world. Chabad does a lot of good, and the story of its growth, led by the fascinating, complicated, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is incredible. But in my opinion she downplays the darker side of this, the most vocal and well-known Hasidic dynasty. There isn’t enough here about the troubling messianic tendencies within the organization (especially in the part of it that lives near me, in Crown Heights Brooklyn) and there isn’t enough about the way secular education is often frowned upon, women put upon, and those who leave the fold ostracized. It isn’t that Fishkoff doesn’t acknowledge these issues, she’s too good a journalist for that, but I feel she doesn’t spend enough time exploring them.

Still, a book that is well worth your time if you’re interested in the Chabbad movement or if you’ve ever been asked on the street “excuse me sir, are you Jewish*?”

Recommended for the Enthusiast..

*A sidenote on this issue. As you may know if you read this site regularly, I’m a ger – someone who converted to Judaism. Chabad isn’t very pro-convert, they’d prefer Christians stay Christian, by and large. If I tell a Chabad-nick I’m a jew by choice, I usually get a number of questions about the way I was converted, who oversaw it, do I kept kosher, etc. Its all generally too much trouble. But I also do not want to say I’m not a Jew, because, well, I am. So my standard response is the non response “no thanks”.