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Blood, Lice, and Gratitude

Question: I noticed that Moses did not take part in bringing forth the plagues of Blood and Lice by not striking the Nile river or the dust. What could be the reason for this?

Answer: You’re making an excellent point about the Blood and Lice. The commentary of Rashi actually points this out as well, so you are in good company. Rashi says that Moses had to show gratitude (so to speak), to the Nile and the dirt of Egypt. The Nile had sheltered him when he was a baby, and the dirt had hidden the Egyptian taskmaster when Moses struck him down – so Moses couldn’t strike them. The Midrash that Rashi cites continues: If we have to show recognition to things like a river and some dirt, which have no feelings, how much more so must we be sensitive to other human beings, and be grateful for whatever they have done for us.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Egyptian Magic

Question: How were the Egyptian magicians able to duplicate the first two plagues?

Answer: The classical commentaries had no problem with the Egyptian magicians being able to duplicate the first two plagues, because they accepted the existence of demons and magic (see Rashi on Ex. 7:22). But they also point out (ibn Ezra, ibid.) that the magicians did only small-scale things (“changing” a small amount of water to “blood”; producing one or two frogs), and these things could have easily been done by slight of hand.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

One Huge Frog

Question: I once heard a Midrash that said that the plague of frogs in Egypt began with one huge frog. Can you tell me exactly how big this frog was according to the Midrash? Was it as big as a fully grown person?

Answer: I looked up the sources about the single original frog (Rashi on Exodus 8:2; Midrash Tanchuma Shemos, chapt 14; Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 67b)——- and, unfortunately, none of them give an exact size. I expect the reason is because the size was not important for the lesson this miracle was sent to demonstrate.

I once wrote a  piece about one lesson we learn from the single frog—I’ll paste that below for your interest.

Take care and keep asking questions,
Shlomo Shulman

Parsha Views

Parshas Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Do you like frogs?

I used to love frogs. I was fascinated by them. I loved waiting by a creek and watching, searching for one squatting on its powerful hind legs, eyes bulging, throat pulsating, unsuspecting. Anticipating a catch, I dreamed of bringing my slimy souvenir home and observing it from up close, through the holes in the lid of a Tupperware container. Oh, those were the days! (more…)

How does a rationalist believe in miracles?

Question: I have trouble believing in miracles. How can a rationalist believe that food fell from the sky and fed the Jewish people in the desert? That the red sea split? That frogs fell out of the sky? Thanks.

Answer: That’s a really fair and reasonable question.

I would start to answer it by suggesting that your understanding of both the concept of “miracles” and the specific stories is based on a non-Jewish society’s take on these concepts (specifically Christian). The only way to see the Jewish understanding is to study the Jewish texts (including the Midrash). Moreover, to understand the concept of a miracle, it is necessary to begin with an understanding of what we mean when we say “God”. This is the necessary starting point for a truly rationalist approach to spirituality.

For starters, I would recommend a book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, If You Were God. Second, I would recommend The Art of Amazement: Judaism’s Forgotten Spirituality. (Full disclosure: I am the author; however, I do not profit from your buying the book, and I obviously believe in it. But don’t take my word for it, read the reviews.)

Good luck, and feel free to contact me for follow-up after you have read either of these two books.

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, jsli.org

[Reposted from the Archives]

Pharoah’s Hardened Heart and Free Will

Question: Why did G-d harden Pharaoh’s heart? Are we to take this literally—that G-d effectively cancelled Pharaoh’s free will and made him nothing more than a puppet in the exodus of our people. Or, more likely, are we to interpret this “hardening” symbolically in that we deceive ourselves into thinking that whether for good or evil we act independently of the hand of G-d. in other words, we are faced with something of a paradox: we act with free will which is a gift from G-d, but at the same time, it is impossible to act independently in a world within which every breath depends on the creator’s active involvement.

Answer: Hi! Thank you for your interesting question. It seems to me that there are various opinions and various ways to approach the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I’ll mention a couple.

The Rambam says very clearly that he understands that Pharaoh had no free will at all in the matter. Because of all the cruelty that he and his people had done to the Jewish nation, they were turned into being nothing more than tools in G-d’s plan to show his love for his people, and to demonstrate his absolute rulership over the world, and even over people’s thoughts. Yisroel was to be redeemed, with tremendous miracles and divine providence, and Egypt was the helpless vehicle for that demonstration. Don’t feel sorry for them, says the Rambam, they deserved it for what they’d done before.

The Ramban disagrees. He says that Pharaoh did not lose his free will at all. On the contrary, the norm would have been for a person to buckle under the tremendous blows that Egypt received during the Plagues. Therefore, G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, making him capable of withstanding the punishment, so he could continue to choose evil if he wanted. After many of the plagues, Pharaoh collapsed and said, Enough already! Take the Jews out. But after G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, he was able to follow his true inclination and hold out further (until the next plague).

It seems to me that you are suggesting a third possibility: This is an example of how G-d runs the world even though we continue to make our own choices. I like the idea, since it is true that he does that. I’ll just mention a concern about taking that approach here. In our days, we live in a world of “hester panim”, of hiddenness, where G-d’s presence and actions are subtle and behind the scenes. See for example the story of Esther. But, it seems to me that the time of the redemption from Egypt was different. In that time, G-d revealed himself openly, with visible miracles, open prophecy, etc. In that context, it could be that we should take the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in a more literal way.

Thanks again for your very fascinating letter.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

 

Plague of Darkness

Question: I read Rabbi Kirshblums article (questions to ponder) where he writes about 2,400,000 jews dying during the plague of darkness. I cant find this in the bible. Please help me to understand why G-d would kill four fifths of his chosen people before he sets them free? thank you

Answer: This is a comment found in the Midrash.

Basically, the Egyptian society was filled with immorality and impurity—the antithesis of G-dliness. Most of Israel had sunk to such a degree that they could not be redeemed.

Therefore G-d decreed that they should pass into the next world rather than being left behind. He made this happen during the Plague of Darkness in order that the Egyptians not see this and misconstrue it as their own victory over the Jews.

It is said that before the Messianic Age something similar will happen. If we look around us—it is happening now. Today there are countless Jews who have been lost to the Jewish people, who no longer consider themselves Jewish! So perhaps this is the decree we learned about so many years ago…

Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Did the Jews Build the Pyramids?

Filed under: Biblical History, Passover

Question: On Passover when we read that the Egyptians forced us to do back-breaking work isn’t there the implication that the work was building the Egyptian pyramids? Not simply Pithom and Ramses? It certainly was implied when we studied this in school. Is it written anywhere specifically that we built them? At least some of them? Naturally I presume that other such structures were built, and that we didn’t build them all. One might even suppose that some remaining today were built much later, and that those of which WE speak are now long gone. After all there are also pyramids in Mexico. However, don’t we still have a claim on at least some of those spoken of, or at least referred to, or implied in the Torah?

Answer: First of all, I’m not sure that any claim we might have to the pyramids should be a source of pride: for one thing, it would have been as slave laborers and for another, the pyramids themselves seem to have been closely identified with idolatrous rites – something our exodus was meant to eliminate.

But in any case, to my knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence connecting our slave activities to the pyramids. The Torah describes the building projects as “Arei Miskanos l’Paroh” (Exodus 1: 11) – which would either translate as storage cities or treasury cities for the king – a description that doesn’t easily lend itself to the design and purpose of the pyramids.

So it would seem that we’ll just have to resign ourselves to the existence of at least one major architectural project that had no Jewish input!

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

G-d in the Burning Bush

Question: How did Moses know that God Is God at the burning bush? G-d is beyond description, has no form and defies human classification. Why didn’t Moses ask for some identification?

Answer: I suspect that the answer is that the experience of direct contact with God is so unique that it does not require special proof. Further, later on, Moshe does demand methods by which to demonstrate that God has sent him – which God provides.

Rabbi Daniel Freitag

More on the Burning Bush:

Mt. Sinai and the Burning Bush

Who spoke from the Burning Bush? 

Blind Faith vs. Trust

Filed under: Miscellaneous

Question: I would like to know the difference between blind faith and trusting in Gd to help us during a difficult season. Is this like just giving over our troubles knowing Gd will grant the prayer?

Answer: In one sense, yes, they are the same.  Blind faith means that you believe in Gd without having any proof to back up your belief.  However, for those who wish to see them, there are miracles all around us.  Trust in Gd means that you believe that everything that Gd does is for our good even though it might not seem so at the time.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber


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