January 20, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Va’era

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And the necromancers of Egypt did likewise with their secret rites, and Pharaoh’s heart was steadfast. –Exodus 7:22


Dini Coopersmith
Public speaker and trip leader, Women’s Reconnection Trips

People see what they want to see. 

“Every man’s way is right in their own eyes,” says King Solomon (Proverbs 21:2). When we are faced with something undesirable, either financially or emotionally, we tend to experience cognitive dissonance and look for any excuse not to believe what we see or hear.

All the rivers already had turned to blood in Egypt, according to the Midrash, even the drinking water and bathing water. What possibly could the magicians of Egypt do to duplicate such a magnificent feat? 

The Ohr haChayim points out that they must have used drinking water they had purchased from the Jews. “This was in no way changing nature, as God had done, but in his stubbornness, Pharaoh did not notice it was just a visual magic trick on their part.” It’s incredible that Pharaoh, with so little “evidence,” decided to stay steadfast in his vision, ignore an all-powerful God and his instructions to let the Jewish people go, which ultimately led to his downfall. 

How often do we do the same thing: We harden our hearts against hearing feedback from a boss, colleague, spouse or friend because our ego is on the line, or our feelings are hurt. We refuse to see the truth because we view the ramifications of that truth as undesirable. We then get our way but it may lead to our undoing, or we miss out on growth, wisdom and truth, which would make our lives so much happier and more fulfilled.

David Sacks
Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

Because Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate the wonder that Moshe and Aaron did from HaShem, Pharaoh reasoned that he was HaShem’s equal. And if he is HaShem’s equal, why should he listen to HaShem?

While Pharaoh’s brazenness might seem shocking, I learned in the name of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, that deep down every person believes that they created themselves. In other words, that all of us have this “God complex.” 

Our rabbis teach that our spiritual dementia stems from our listening to the snake in the Garden of Eden. If we’re ever to heal ourselves, we need to understand what the snake convinced us of so that we can avoid making the same mistake. 

In short, the snake tricked us into thinking that if we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that we can be just like God. But becoming God was never a real possibility. Only HaShem is HaShem. The test was, God wanted to see if we knew that! 

Believe it or not, this same scene from the Garden of Eden plays itself out in our lives on a daily basis. 

Every day, HaShem creates situations in our lives where we get the opportunity to demonstrate that we’ve shed our spiritual insanity, that we finally know our true identity. That we aren’t God, but rather the children he loves, and that he is our Father in Heaven.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber
Rabbi, Beth El Synagogue in Durham, N.C.

The Egyptian magicians did the same? Abraham ibn Ezra asks, “If Aaron turned all the water in Egypt to blood, where did the Egyptian magicians get water to do their trick?” Some explain God made it rain for just this purpose. Others say the magicians went to Goshen, where the Israelites lived and the plagues had no effect, or that they got water from houses of Israelites who lived near the palace. 

Ibn Ezra says only visible water was affected by the plague, so they dug for new water as it says in verse 24. But one of my bar mitzvah students asked an even better question: Why would Egyptian magicians want to hurt Egyptians? God turned the river to blood to punish the Egyptians. Why would Pharaoh’s magicians do the same? Were they trying to curry favor? Were they following orders, afraid of Pharaoh’s wrath? Does that excuse their behavior? 

When I teach kids (and adults), I tell them that the measure of character is not your ability to do the right thing when everyone else is doing the right thing. It is the willingness to risk, to resist, to be unpopular and go against the grain. Abraham is called “Ivri,” from the root ayin-vet-reish, meaning, “to cross over” because he is from the other side of the Euphrates River. Abraham is other. To be a Jew is not to just go along; it is to be other.

Shaindy Jacobson
Director Rosh Chodesh Society, Rohr Jewish Learning Institute

A prominent scientist challenges God to a contest: Who can create the superior human being? The test is on! With great delight, the scientist bends toward the ground to gather some dust to make his human being. “No,” says God. “Use your own dust.” 

“And the necromancers of Egypt did likewise with their secret rites …” With all their occult powers, these sorcerers were impotent without God’s divinely given orders to the universe. Their successes were strictly incumbent upon the Creator of all creators because God is found everywhere: not only in the moments that seem to defy nature — which we see as miraculous — but he is also found within the very design of nature itself. Just as the magicians of Egypt tapped into their “secret rites,” made possible only by the Almighty, with which to create — so, too, has God endowed us with the ability to embrace our personal powers of creation. 

And herein lies the secret to our survival. 

We’ve been placed on this Earth to use all of our God-given faculties, resources and gifts to create whatever it is that will help make the world a better, more Godly place. We need to understand and know that neither science, technology nor the arts displace God. Rather, they all reveal his presence and wondrous ways. It is not only a blessed opportunity for us to be co-creators, to fashion things from the “dust” that is put before us, but to do so in appreciation of this divine mission.

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

Pharaoh’s refusal to see the hand of God in a display of miraculous plagues that afflicted the Egyptians without harming their slaves, the Jews, is a classic example of cognitive dissonance, i.e. the mental impasse that occurs when one’s subjective beliefs are contradicted by new information. Pharaoh convinced himself and his subjects that he was a deity and beyond reproach. This understanding combined with the familiar presence of sorcery in Egypt at that time to become a monkey wrench that prevented Pharaoh from recognizing the truth.

Simply stated, Pharaoh had such a vested interest in believing that the unnatural events being exhibited in plain view could be explained away, that he became blind to the clear truth that was apparent for all to see. 

While it may appear to be foolish behavior or self-delusion on the part of Pharaoh, the Torah recognizes that, in fact, we are all prone to bias: You shall not pervert justice, you shall not display favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and distorts words that are just. (Deuteronomy 16:19).

Pharaoh’s refusal to recognize the truth ultimately resulted in his demise.

Anytime we make decisions, we need to check the subtle bribes that cloud our thinking. May we have the courage to recognize our biases, and make the necessary adjustments to recalibrate our lives in line with these newfound truths.