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Parashat Va’era 5777 — 01/28/2017

Parashat Va’era 5777 — 01/28/2017

Shemot 6:2-9:35

The first two plagues with which Egypt was smitten had to do with water – in the first plague the water turned to blood, and in the second it spawned an infestation of frogs. Now water is an almost universal metaphor for the infinite – the ocean appears infinite. Water is the basis of life – our best understanding is that life evolved in the water and our bodies are mostly water. The rains bring life to the earth, and the overflow of the Nile brought life to Egypt. A human being can survive some weeks without food, but barely two or three days without water. Ramchal associates water with the attribute of chesed. The plagues involved changing chesed into the attribute of din. Blood, in particular, is associated with din, judgment, punishment, execution, so the changing of the life-giving Nile’s water to undrinkable blood was a clear indication of the way things were about to go for the Egyptians.

Why did Aharon strike the water instead of Moshe? The “standard” answer is that the water saved Moshe (when he was a baby in the basket in the bulrushes and Pharaoh’s daughter found him), so it would have been inappropriate for Moshe to strike the water. Ramchal adds:

On a deeper level, Moshe was spiritually rooted in chesed. The Torah writes that the daughter of Pharaoh named him Moshe because ki min hamayim m’shitihu, “For I drew him from the water.” (2:10). The water is a physical manifestation of Hashem’s chesed and it is from this water that Moshe was spiritually drawn…

Not only did the water protect Moshe, but it would have been impossible to strike the water, as it would have been striking his own spiritual root! In actuality, Gd told Moshe to have Aharon strike the water, as Aharon’s spiritual root was din. Aharon is described (at this point in time) as “the Levite,” and the tribe of Levi is rooted in din – it was they that executed the idolaters in the incident of the Golden Calf, and it was Levi (with Shimon) who destroyed Shechem in the incident of Dinah. Even though Aharon later became associated with kindness (see Avot 1:12), that was in his role as a Kohen; the Kohanim are tasked with blessing the people with love. (I might add that the Rabbis enacted a special kind of divorce document for Kohanim, that was very difficult to have written and signed properly, as they tended to be irascible and would try to divorce their wives lightly. Since a Kohen cannot marry a divorced woman, they couldn’t take their wives back when they cooled down. The Rabbis gave them a chance to cool down before the divorce could be finalized.)

The plague was executed using the staff (mateh). The numerical value of mateh (54, mem = 40, tet = 9, heh = 5) is the same as din (dalet = 4, nun = 50). Aharon is instructed to “raise” his staff. Ramchal comments:

In order to turn the water into blood, the power of din was required. The presence of din, however, represents a great danger, for that same din which provides a spiritual power also provides the strength for tum’ah to exist. Aharon needed to raise the staff to insure that the tum’ah would not nourish from the din.

There are two situations in which din exists; either elevated, in which case it acts as a tool to overpower the tum’ah and drive it into submission, or lowered, in which case the tum’ah attaches itself and nourishes from it. In order to use the din to force Egypt and the associated tum’ah into submission, it had to be in an elevated and raised state. It was through Aharon the Levi and the raised staff representing the elevated Attribute of Din, that the plagues beginning with transforming the waters of chesed into blood would be initiated.

Din is a Divine attribute and is necessary for the world to function properly, as are all the Divine attributes. Tum’ah on the other hand, is impurity, the opposite of Divinity in a sense. Ramchal is asserting that there is a linkage between the two. Perhaps we can understand this linkage this way. We have discussed that chesed is the flow of Divine grace and energy, and that this flow needs to be channeled in boundaries for it to be useful and effective, just as a river must remain within its banks to provide blessing and not a ruinous flood. Those boundaries are what din provides. There has to be a balance between chesed and din however for the system to run properly. If there is an overabundance of chesed then all we get is a flood, while if there is an overabundance of din then we get a rigid system that cannot adapt and grow in response to external inputs.

Gd is the ultimate source of all purity (taharah), so I think we can understand tum’ah (impurity) as a state of a system which is distanced from Gd, or moving away from Gd. Egypt was full of tum’ah – its entire focus was on material acquisition by whatever means possible, including throwing babies into the Nile and other cruelties. How is this tum’ah to be overcome? Ramchal indicates that it is through an increase in din, but an “elevated” din. I think I would understand the concept of an “elevated” din as one that is connected closely to the Divine, and is coming to rectify the imbalance that is tum’ah. This is the din that can subdue tum’ah. A lowered din is simply boundaries for the sake of boundaries, which creates nothing but more confusion and less progress. This situation “feeds” the tum’ah – that is, it drives the system away from the integrated state it needs to attain to reflect the perfect integration that is the transcendent. An example might be two models of policing – one where the police identify problems in the society and bring the resources to rectify the problem, as opposed to a model of mass incarceration of those who need help of some kind, which further spreads and exacerbates the problems.

The creation of boundaries necessarily involves distancing from the boundless, infinite Gd. Nonetheless, when the boundaries all work together in an integrated fashion, they reflect the pure nature of their source. In our own lives, it is up to us to balance all the Divine attributes through our actions, to reveal the Divinity behind every grain of sand.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Va’eira

Va’eira” means “and I appeared”.  Moses complains to Gd that Pharoah has not let his people go. Gd responds that He is appearing to Moses in Full Strength to deliver the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He will make them a great nation.

2 Gd spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the Lrd.

בוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה:

3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty Gd, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.

גוָֽאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶל־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם:


As “Elohim” Gd speaks to Moses. He tells him He is “YudHeVavHe.”  He then tells Moses that he appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “EL ShaDaI but as “YudHeVavHe” He did not become known by them (Rashi’s commentary).

Assuming this is so, we’ll tentatively look at YHVH as describing four different levels through which Gd, Totality, Appears within Gd as ranging from Abstraction to Concreteness – the four worlds of Kabbalah: Beriyah,  Atzilut, Yetzirah and Asiyah; from this point of view Gd tells Moses he is getting the whole range (manifest, at least) of existence and he should have confidence that although Pharoah and the Children of Israel have not listened to Moses so far, they WILL listen so Moses should do as Gd commands—tell Pharoah to free Gd’s people.

There seems to be a hierarchy through which Gd is recognized by humans and it seems that neither Abraham, Isaac nor Jacob have recognized the Full Wholeness within which the Hierarchy exists – they have not experienced complete Oneness, despite Torah telling us that Abraham was “given every blessing.”  Something seems to have been left out of their awareness but that seems to be given to Moses – at least, Gd is presenting Gd to Moses from all levels of Hierachy, and from the Wholeness within which they are increasingly “manifest” expressions.

In the rest of the Parshah, Gd tells Moses that He will bring about 10 plagues through Moses and Aaron, hardening Pharoah’s heart each time so that Pharoah, who has denied Gd as One, will come to recognize that Gd is One, within whom all the Egyptian deities are but small expressions.

We might look at the physiological symbolism of Gd, Moses, Pharoah, Egypt and Promised Land from many angles. Dr.Tony Nader, whose books on Human Physiology and Ramayan in Human Physiology are familiar to many Beth Shalom congregants, presents a model which we might adapt to Torah for those people, places, things and events for which I have as yet found no Kabbalistic physiological representation.

For example, Gd would be the Total Physiology but also at every level of physiology He would be the Totality but especially the Central Governing Aspect. Canaan, the Promised Land, would correspond to a healthy physiology; Egypt would correspond to a stressed physiology. Pharoah particularly would correspond to a stressor of the whole physiology.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg in his book “Body, Mind and Soul”: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing says that all disease results from a lack of gratitude. From this angle, the slavery in Egypt resulted from our ancestor’s losing the ability to be aware of Gd as the source of all goodness. The return to freedom results from returning to recognition of Gd as the source of all and to increasingly live our life with a desire to attune to Him in gratitude – not as a mood but as the natural reality which occurs as we respect others, are kind to them, grateful to them, and through them, respect Gd, Gd’s kindness and are grateful to Gd.

Torah study – listening, reciting, thinking about – in English but especially in Hebrew is a good tool to bring us into alignment with Gd and naturally to good health, good relations with others.

Prayer, especially the prayers of our siddur which generally do not ask Gd for help but praise Gd for His Qualities, beyond our present ability to know, but within the range of our ability to Know through living a good life.

I am very encouraged with the great friendliness, love and joy that I experience in so many of our Fairfield residents and I am confident that many of us are coming very close to Gd – no plagues needed!

Baruch HaShem!