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Parashat Va’era 5776 — 01/09/2016

Parashat Va’era 5776 — 01/09/2016

Shemot 6:2-9:35

This time I have sinned.  Gd is righteous, and I and my people are wicked” (9:27)

I’d rather be happy than right.  Ali Najafi

Throughout the first 6 plagues, Pharoah and Moshe Rabbeinu appear to be negotiating with one another over whether, and under what conditions, the Israelites are going to get a brief vacation.  R. Steinsaltz points out that this “vacation” was a symbolic gesture of Israelite independence, and this is why Pharaoh was so resistant to allowing something whose actual direct economic consequences would have been relatively marginal.  Symbolic gestures can lead to very real consequences, and Pharaoh was well aware of this.

With the plague of hail, things changed radically.  Now we are not talking about symbolic gestures any more, but real destruction – trees, crops, people and animals.  As R. Steinsaltz points out, hail is very rare in Egypt and Pharaoh was quite frightened.  Anyone who’s driven through a good Midwestern hailstorm, even if they’re used to it, can relate to his feelings very well!

Pharaoh does not grow up as an ordinary person, but as the king of Egypt.  Consequently, he grows up under the simple assumption that he is no less than a god.  This assumption is not a matter of abstract theology; it is bound up with the fundamental premise of his life and with the basic  way he views the world. …

   In the course of the ten plagues, Pharaoh goes through a process of change in his fundamental conception of his own life, a process that reaches its climax in the plague of hail.  His confrontation with Moses leads him to discover, for the first time in his life, that he is not infallible, that perhaps he is the one who is acting improperly.  He is exposed to this idea for the first time, and for someone like him this comes as a great shock, shattering the foundations of his life. … He must now re-examine and reassess all of his past actions.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to say that, his glorious position notwithstanding, Pharaoh is really an archetype for every ordinary person – we all have a phenomenal capacity for rationalization, for making ourselves right, and it often takes a hailstorm of some kind to convince us otherwise.  Why is this?

I think that the answer lies in the nature and structure of creation.  The basis of creation is the infinite, abstract field of pure Being.  That pure Being manifests itself into the various forms and phenomena of the world, both surface forms and more abstract ones that we ordinarily don’t see directly (e.g. the laws of physics).  When it comes to human beings, the structure of our nervous systems is complex enough that we have self-awareness – we realize that we are all individuals, although we may not be aware of the underlying connections that bind us to the rest of the individuals in creation.

This self-awareness of ourselves as individuals puts us in a position where we feel we must fight to maintain our individuality – that is, we struggle to deny our connection with our infinite source.  Practically speaking, in religious terms, this takes the form of a kind of adolescent rebellion against Gd – as in the case of Pharaoh.  Pharaoh felt that surrender to Gd would impinge on his integrity as an individual and therefore struggled mightily against it.

An analogy might make this more understandable.  Consider a candle – it gives light to its surroundings, but if it is placed in the sunlight, it isn’t even noticed!  In the same way, we fear coming too close to the transcendent, for it is infinite and we are finite, and next to the infinite, the finite really is nothing.  If we were only our finite selves, this would be a real problem!  But we are not just our finite selves.  The infinite is all-pervasive, and that means it pervades us as well.  If we connect back to the infinite, we are not losing our finite selves, we are strengthening our finite, individual personality by linking it back to our infinite, unbounded, shared personality.

This is the essence of t’shuvah – return to what we intrinsically are, and it creates a radical shift in our lives.  Rambam describes it (paraphrase): One day the person is estranged from Gd, his prayers are torn up and thrown back in his face.  When he does t’shuvah he is now loved and welcomed in Gd’s House.  What is the difference?  The essence of t’shuvah is that we become a new person, with a new way of thinking.  Our assumptions are different, because our perception of who we are is different.

In Pharaoh’s case, perhaps we should say that his conception of himself was more restricted – he finally figured out that he was a mortal man, not a god.  But really, his perception of himself was finally beginning to conform to the reality of his limited self.  In the case of a true ba’al t’shuvah (penitent) however, the new way of thinking and behaving corresponds to an awareness of our true, divine inner nature!

Ideally, it shouldn’t take a plague of Biblical proportions to prompt us to do t’shuvah.  There is really enough dysfunction in all our lives, both individual and communal, local and global, that we have to scratch our heads and wonder why a loving Gd would create such a life.  Well, He didn’t – we did.  But Gd holds His hand out to us continually – the opportunity to turn our lives around is always right in front of us.  We just need to wake up and take the lifeline being offered us.  Hail to the Chief!

Haftarah: Yechezkel 28:25-29:21

Thus says my Lord Hashem/Elokim: Behold! I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great sea-monster that crouches within its rivers, who has said, “Mine is the River [Nile] and I have made myself.”  (29:3)

The whole point of the 10 plagues was to teach Pharaoh, and by his example, the entire world, that Gd is the one, singular Creator.  It’s almost absurd to think that someone created himself – it’s a logical impossibility.  Yet we all manage to believe all kinds of contradictory premises all the time.  It’s amazing how flexible the human mind can be, isn’t it?  At some point though, our misconceptions and conceits all bang up against reality.  The harder we hold fast to them, the more painful the confrontation will be.  T’shuvah opens the mind and heart to the ultimate reality of life, making the confrontation completely unnecessary!