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    Leaving empty-handed

    January 22nd, 2023

    God told Moses that when the Hebrew people left Egypt it would not be empty-handed (Ex. 3:21-22). The long years of unpaid servitude needed to be compensated.

    We might have thought that no amount of compensation would ever be adequate – but this is not the Torah’s view. It told the Hebrews to ask their Egyptian neighbours to give them vessels of silver and gold.

    What did the neighbours have to say? Did they give willingly? The M’chilta says that they did, probably out of remorse. How is this possible? All those years of servitude – how could they be compensated by gold and silver! Surely nothing could pay for the suffering.

    The M’chilta however is saying that the gold and silver are not meant to be a reward or reparations. They are an acknowledgement that great sins have been committed. They are a token or symbol of repentance.

    Rivers of blood

    January 22nd, 2023

    The Ten Plagues hit horrifically at the central features of Egyptian life, the economy, the agriculture, the food supply, the transport network, the monarchy, the theology, the class system.

    No wonder the upheaval was so devastating. The targets were all the things that the Egyptians regarded as mighty and divine. Imagine the furore – the great imperial palace was attacked, the Nile became a river of blood, the animals sickened and died. Normal living became impossible.

    Centuries later the Haggadah emphasised an ethical lesson which the rabbis had recommended, the recognition that the Egyptians were human beings and despite their wickedness they deserved a modicum of respect.

    The Ten Plagues, however, were a necessary tug of war which pitted the God of Israel against the gods of Egypt. It was the struggle of power as against puniness. It was proof that those who defy God are themselves defied!

    God & Rav Kook – Va’era

    January 15th, 2023

    The name of the sidra literally means “And I appeared”. Since God has no corporeality or physicality it cannot mean that human beings are able to see God’s appearance. But many things on earth, many aspects of earthly culture, are perceptible refractions of God.

    Rav Kook, the poet-philosopher and chief rabbi of the Holy Land, said that special people can perceive spiritual things wherever they look. The great artists, musicians and writers are spiritually sensitive.

    Rav Kook himself saw spiritual light in great works of art like the Rembrandts at the National Gallery in London, which he visited when he was in England during the First World War.

    No wonder there is criticism of people who do not want Israeli children to learn “secular” subjects; Rav Kook would have said that you can often find the holy in the supposedly unholy.

    Where were the women? – Va’era

    January 15th, 2023

    In its narration of events the Torah tends to focus on the men and does not always indicate the piety and good sense of the women.

    Yet it was because of women’s merits that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b). They did not join in the sin of the making of the Golden Calf (Midrash Tanchuma). On the other hand, when it came to building the Tabernacle, the enthusiasm and generosity of the women were outstanding (Ex. 35).

    What a pity it is that Jewish history does not always acknowledge the greatness and piety of the women.

    Some thinkers argue that women are more naturally spiritual than the men and hence they need less rituals to show their love of God.

    These days the women of the Jewish people are often remarkably committed to religious worship and Torah study.

    Plagues from God

    January 15th, 2023

    The Almighty gave ample warning of the coming plagues (Ex. 8). In the Torah text it says that God would lift His finger in order to bring about the plagues.

    Why not His full hand?

    The references to God’s finger and hand are of course metaphorical (Targum Onkelos makes this clear by adjusting the terminology to “a plague from before the Lord”), but even so we wonder why in acknowledging the Divine might the Egyptian magicians only say “finger” and not “hand”.

    One possibility (Ramban) is that the magicians were belittling God and telling the Egyptians not to take Him too seriously.

    Another approach is to say that God was not employing His full might against Egypt. It was bad enough for Egypt to receive His finger of punishment: how much worse it would have been if He had come down more harshly and used His full power.