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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Va'eira

Parashat Va’eira

Tevet 28, 5980 – January 25, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Va’eira, which is Hebrew for “and I appeared.” The word va’eira (וָֽאֵרָ֗א) is used by G-d in a statement to Moshe about how He appeared to the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as El Shaddai,[1] a Name for a variety of revelation that does not “openly disrupt the course of nature.”[2] Throughout the Book of Genesis, we read about how G-d aided the Patriarchs during times of famine, various conflicts, and even helped them to accumulate wealth. But none of those interventions directly challenged the laws of nature, which is about to change in this parashah as G-d is preparing to bend the earthly reality on a scale that was previously unknown to the Patriarchs. Instead of using the name El Shaddai, G-d reveals himself to Moshe in a different way – in the form (or through the essence of) the Name Hashem.[3] Rashi explains that “Hashem…represents G-d as the One Who carries out his promises, for G-d was now prepared to fulfill his pledge to free Israel and bring them to the Land.”[4] If you remember from last week – at the conclusion of Parashat Shemot – Moshe complains to G-d and questions how the Jews will be rescued from an oppressive state of slavery and persecution. Parashat Va’eira is a continuation of this conversation, whereby G-d rebukes Moshe for questioning His ways, and says to him “I am Hashem,” which is considered to be G-d’s highest manifestation, as it is a Name that signifies mercy. The Children of Israel are about to witness a series of miracles, and a form of redemption, that is based upon the demonstration of this divine attribute. But, Va’eira (and Parashat Bo next week), is very much about the tension between G-d’s ultimate power over nature and the limits of human control, which is a message that can be relevant for our environmental dilemma today.[5]

When G-d appears to Moshe, he is told of the four expressions of redemption that G-d will employ to take the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) out of Egypt. The expressions are as follows: 1) G-d would end the burdens of slavery, 2) remove the Jews from Egypt, 3) redeem them (which is an allusion to the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds), and 4) take them with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.[6] Moshe and his brother Aaron are then instructed to appear before Pharaoh to appeal for the release of the Jewish people, although they are told (by G-d) that Pharaoh would refuse. Moshe and Aaron were two individuals – charged, by G-d – to work as instruments for the Jewish people in fulfilling G-d’s promise. This promise involved realizing the covenant which assures the Land of Israel to the descendants of Abraham. Through Moshe and Aaron, the world was to see that “the finger” (8:15) and “the hand” (14:31) of G-d were at work, enacting their redemption. G-d, of course, is not thought to literally have a body – they are metaphors used to describe the physical mechanics that will exercise their superiority over Pharaoh and the Egyptians.[7] After Pharaoh and his magicians contend the marvels that Moshe and Aaron produce, G-d’s ‘handiwork’[8] (so to speak) commences with a series of plagues that inflict great suffering upon Egypt. In this parashah, we read about seven of these plagues, which are: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, an epidemic, boils, and hail. These will come to constitute seven of ten plagues whereby G-d exacts a myriad of punishments on Egypt. Even though the parashah concludes with the assumption that more plagues are to follow, Pharaoh still won’t release the Children of Israel, as we are told that “[Pharaoh] continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn, he and his servants.” (9:34)

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the significance of the plagues in this parashah, as they are notably ecological. It is a section of the Torah that demands an ecologically valuable message, and a radical reorientation to the earth as a subject within the text. I say this because, according to traditional rabbinic interpretation, G-d is warping the laws of nature which provides the space for miracles to occur. But how much autonomy does the earth have in this section of the Book of Exodus – is the earth working with G-d to actively resist human action? How is G-d working through nature, or – put another way – how is the voice of the earth reflecting G-d’s voice to cry out against injustice? While this may raise some complicated theological questions, I do want to make clear that these ruminations do not challenge G-d’s eminence – asking whether the earth has a voice is not pantheism. The plagues in Parashat Va’eira are prompting us to question the human role within creation. As humans we exist within nature – not apart from it; nature is a container for human action that is part of an even larger cosmic design. There are layers to our reality and those layers are interconnected – the earth, humans, animals, trees, grass, mushrooms, and air are all partnered to one another, and are all dependent upon one another for life and survival. And, so, we must ask: what is happening with the earth during the plagues?

There are instances within many of the plagues where boundaries are present – when the Nile river is turned to blood, commentators note that only the Egyptians were affected by this plague, not the Jews. The commentary continues: “In fact, if an Egyptian needed water, he had to buy it from a Jew, but if he took it by force, the water changed to blood as soon as it came into his possession.”[9] This point about boundaries is also evident in the fourth plague, the swarm of wild beasts. In (8:18-19), G-d says: “I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which my people stand, that there shall be no swarm there; so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land. I shall make a distinction between My people and your people…” The same is true for the plague of the epidemic, whereby the Torah tells us: “Hashem shall distinguish between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and not a thing that belongs to the Children of Israel will die.” (9:4) The only loophole to this premise (that I could think of) is regarding the plague of lice. This is, after all, one of the reasons that Jacob insisted that he be buried in Eretz Yisrael, for he knew that the soil of Egypt would one day be turned to lice.[10] But this doesn’t suggest that his body would have been affected, only Egyptian land would have been sullied, so this is somewhat of a moot point. The primary matter to emphasize, though, is that the Torah is quite clear about this fact: where the Jews lived, the earth wasn’t affected by the plagues in the same way. This is particularly evident throughout plagues four through six (wild beasts, the epidemic, and boils), whereby “the narrative stresses that these three plagues did not affect the Jewish people, which demonstrated that G-d controlled all minutiae of earthly happenings.”[11] This is because the onslaught of plagues are demonstrating a general pattern – three sets of three plagues each – which are establishing three eternal principles: 1) the existence of Hashem, 2) G-d’s providence extends to earthly affairs and he is not oblivious to material matters, and 3) G-d is unmatched by any power.[12] The implications of this second principle are quite ecologically profound, because it implies that the earth and humans are mutually dependent upon one another. If they weren’t, G-d’s providence wouldn’t have extended to both Egyptian people and Egyptian land, which suggests a partnership – or an interconnection – of some kind.

The earth is certainly capable of protesting against violations of natural law – when humans take certain actions to disrupt natural order, there are consequences. This is evidenced by a simple ecological principle, such as homeostasis. Homeostasis is a fancy word to describe how the earth is always trying to maintain some sort of equilibrium, and balance between all its parts. And when human beings force one of those parts out of balance, the earth pushes back to maintain a certain order. The earth speaks to us in this way, through patterns and living signs. Ramban, and other rabbinical sources, explain that people – throughout history – have known how to alter nature and utilize the powers that are built into Creation.[13] Through incantations, or various forms of magic, people were able to override the laws of nature. But if nature is manipulated in the wrong way, and for the wrong purposes, there are consequences – and this is what we are seeing throughout Parashat Va’eira. There are several instances in the narrative where Pharaoh, and his necromancers, are using a form of magic to replicate the wonders that G-d is producing. We first see this when Aaron casts down his staff and it turns into a snake, which is replicated by Pharaoh’s practitioners but to no effect. In the same vein, Pharaoh and his magicians sought to duplicate the plagues – which they did, as was the case with the blood and frogs – but this magic is what provided justification for Pharaoh not to submit to Moshe and Aaron. One could presume that Pharaoh and his magicians were co-opting natural powers for their own ends, whereby they were seeking to rule over – rather than sustain a balance with – the earth. Rashi cites the Midrash when he describes how Pharaoh had proclaimed himself to be a G-d[14] – the Nile River was considered an Egyptian deity[15] and animals were being worshiped – yet all of this is contrasted with a Jewish way of life that very much integrated the forms of life that necessitated their existence. Ramban notes that Egyptians worshiped animals, yet detested sheepherders, and kept their flocks outside of the cities – concentrating most of them in Goshen (where the Jews lived).[16] This is a form of segregation that splits life from livelihood (something that we seem to do a lot of in this modern world), and wields a form of magic that inverts a natural order. This is ultimately what idolatry is about, and the earth does push back when natural order is ignored. Tip the scales too much in one direction, and natural law breaks. Then, in step extraordinary events unexplainable by natural law: a miracle, plagues, natural disaster – G-d.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that the plagues did not run back to back. The process for each plague to run its course took a month, but the actual duration of each plague was seven days.[17] Rashi indicates that the lull between each plague was to serve as a warning period for Pharaoh. We also see this in (8:7) where the Torah says: “Pharaoh saw that there had been a relief, and kept making his heart stubborn.” The earth, and G-d, had given their warning yet Pharaoh remained dogmatic and refused to alter his thinking. In (9:8-10) we read of how Moshe threw handfuls of soot from the furnace heavenward, which initiates the plague of boils and blisters. Rashi notes that this word, boils (שְׁחִין֙) implying heat,[18] which was the last of the set of plagues that established G-d’s providence in earthly affairs. To me, this sounds a lot like fossil fuels and climate change, but do I need to state the obvious? Will we take action during the lulls that are provided for us, or will we make our hearts stubborn? What unhealthy forms of our own bending of nature are keeping us from seeing the writing on the wall?

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week.

Topics Include: G-d’s providence in nature, warning signs, and a healthy partnership with the earth

Works Cited

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Scherman, Nosson, and Meir Zlotowitz. Complete Artscroll Siddur. Artscroll, 1990.

[1] Commentaty in the Stone Edition Chumash relates that the name El Shaddai “derives from the word דַּי (meaning sufficient) and denotes G-d as the One Who sets limits on Creation by establishing the laws of nature.” (p.319)

[2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.319, commentary by Ramban

[3] The Name Hashem was revealed to Moshe last week, in Parashat Shemot, so it is not the first time that we are seeing this Name. But it is important to note how Moshe is being chastised by G-d in the opening of this parashah, as G-d is contrasting the degrees of revelation He unveils.

[4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.319

[5] It may even be our inability to express, and reflect, this attribute of mercy towards the earth, that has weakened the human capacity for mediation of natural phenomena, so the balance will eventually tip (again) towards G-d and earth-driven homeostasis. In Kabbalistic thinking, the divine attribute of mercy is associated with the sefirah, or the emotive emanative power, of tiferet. Mercy is the microcosmic vessel within humans which hold the beauty of the macrocosm. Each sefirot is divisible into two aspects of lights and vessels, and in this case, beauty is the light (macrocosm) and mercy the vessel (microcosm). Without the capacity to internally hold the beauty of the natural world, we can’t reflect it, express it or create it.

[6] These four stages are where we get the Four Cups for the Pesach Seder, which has much to teach us about how we connect food with ancestral memory; food is a variety of living history and it is invariably linked to a particular geography.

[7] Scherman and Zlotowitz, Complete Artscroll Siddur, p.15 – “G-d has no semblance of a body nor has He a body.” This is regarding Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith.”

[8] In 3:19 (Parashat Shemot) G-d says: “I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go, except through a strong hand. I shall stretch out My hand and I shall strike Egypt with all My wonders that I shall perform in its midst.”

[9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.327

[10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.268

[11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.332

[12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.326

[13] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.325

[14] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.327

[15] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.329

[16] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.335

[17] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.335

[18] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.335

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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