Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.


Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Parashat Mikets – Of Gods and Dreams

אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱ׳לֹהִים בּוֹ

Parashat Mikets begins by telling the story of Paroah’s dreams of the cattle and the wheat, dreams which none of Paroah’s magicians are able to solve. Then, upon recommendation from his wine-bearer, Paroah brings Yosef up from the dungeons and asks him to interpret it. Yosef promptly does so, and Paroah is so excited and sure about Yosef’s interpretation that not only does he listen to Yosef’s advice to appoint someone over the produce of the land of Egypt, but the person he picks is Yosef himself. However, upon looking at Yosef’s interpretation, it is unclear what about it is so striking to Paroah. While Yosef’s interpretation is not obvious, it is also far from something that would require a divine revelation. A key point in understanding this is appreciating that regardless of the objective superiority of Yosef’s interpretation, there is something about it that is appealing specifically to Paroah. The Torah confirms Yosef’s interpretation later when it comes true. It confirms it immediately by way of Paroah’s appreciation and acceptance of it. Looking at Yosef’s interpretation with that in mind, it immediately becomes clearer the ways in which his interpretation is superior to that of the magicians.

Throughout Yosef’s interpretation, there is one aspect that is emphasized over and over again.

And Joseph said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows it; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled to Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass. (Bereishit 41:25-32)

Yosef mentions three times throughout these verses that the dream is one, despite the fact that it would appear to be two separate dreams, one about cattle and one about grain. Twice it is stated in the positive, “the dream is one” (41:25-26), and once in the negative, where Yosef needs to explain why the dream appeared to be two separate dreams if it is in fact one. This part of Yosef’s interpretation parallels perfectly Paroah’s experience of the dream. When Paroah first dreamed the dream, he awoke between the two halves of the dream, but returns to sleep with no notice about the dream (41:4-5). But when he awakens from the second dream, he suddenly becomes aware of his dream, in singular, indicating that he became aware of both parts of the dream and that they were a singular entity. This unity is also expressed when Paroah tells his dream to the magicians, and the text specifically refers to it as a “dream,” in singular (41:8). However, when that very same verse describes the failure of the magicians it says, “They could not explain them,” meaning the dreams, in plural. Thus it is very clear that what makes Yosef’s explanation superior in the eyes of Paroah is that it fits with his unified experience of the dream.

Perhaps that would be enough on its own to explain the superiority of Yosef’s explanation[1], but there is another repeating aspect of the interpretation stands out. Before he begins his explanation Yosef states, “What God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh” (41:25). Then after he has explained the symbols of the dream, before moving to explaining the larger picture, Yosef says, “That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh” (41:28). Finally, Yosef finishes his interpretation by saying, “it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (41:32). Thus over and beyond the emphasis on the unity of the dream is the idea that the dream and that which it represents all come from ‘א.

These two aspects of Yosef’s interpretation are connected in an important manner, one that is a function of the primary difference between pagan and monotheistic mindsets. This therefore also demonstrates why it is the magicians could not arrive at the correct interpretation.

Divination is often defined as the discovery by various means of the will and decree of the gods. But this definition inadvertently imposes upon paganism a unified view of the universe that is foreign in its essence. It presupposes that both the disclosure and the decree stem always from the will of the gods. But paganism was conscious of no such unity, for it did not attribute everything to the will of the gods. Some events and conditions had nothing to do with the gods; others befell the gods themselves as decrees overriding fate. (Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel)

Pagan mythologies did not assume that one supreme and sovereign deity created everything; Rather, multiple gods and forces emerged from reality and drew their power therefrom. Thus while a prophetic dream might come from one god, the event conveyed in the prophecy might be the work of another. Alternatively, one or both might be a function of the power latent in reality itself. There would be no reason for Paroah’s magicians to assume that two different dreams which happened be involve the same number were connected in any way. Yosef, however, grew up well acquainted with ‘א as the sole God of History, and thus could only assume that the two dreams came not only from the same source of each other, but also from the same source as the event the dreams depict. Yosef is therefore also able to assume that this message came to Paroah for a reason beyond the whim of the gods, and therefore there has to be some sort of practical outcome from the dreams proper interpretation. It is on this basis that he recommends to Paroah a plan to save Egypt from the coming famine.

This split between monotheism and pagan mythology is manifest not just in this story but also in the laws of the Torah itself.

When you are come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you. You shall be wholesome with the Lord your God. For these nations, that you are to dispossess, listen to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. (Devarim 18:9-14)

Bnei Yisrael are specifically forbidden from seeking out magicians and the like in order to determine what the future holds or what course of action should be taken. The Torah never states that these things don’t work, because this would distract from the real problem with these practices. These practices assume a pagan mindset wherein ‘א is not the sole source of everything that exists. Instead they assume that any divinity is simply something that emerged from reality and draws its power from there, and thus if a human could tap into this power then they could bypass, fight against, or perhaps even overpower, the gods. Thus these practices have to be false in a monotheistic world, but more problematic is their implicit statement that ‘א is not supreme. In place of these practices, the Torah provides an alternative method of determining what the future holds or what the correct course of action is.

A prophet will the Lord your God raise up to you, from the midst of you, of your brethren, like to me; to him you shall listen; according to all that you desired of the Lord your God in Horev in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’ And the Lord said to me: ‘They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like to you; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I will hold him accountable. But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you shall not be afraid of him. (Devarim 18:15-22)

In place of magicians and necromancers the Torah has the institution of the prophet, the messenger of ‘א. Since everything is created by ‘א and ‘א is in control of History, any attempt to determine the future must be an inquiry of ‘א, not some other imagined force. Since the prophets message of the future comes from the source of the future, the prophets message is also assuredly true, and thus the people can act on it[2]. This of course raises the problem of a person who claims to have received the prophetic word without actually having received it, but the Torah accounts for that as well by simply saying that the prophet is only to be trusted if his predictions come true[3]. Meanwhile a false prophet can’t accidentally predict the future because ‘א, the God of History, will ensure that his predictions fail. Thus the false and problematic magical practices of the nations of the land of Canaan are replaced by the godly messenger, the prophet.

It is this difference between pagan mythology and monotheism that sets Paroah at ease after hearing Yosef’s explanation. Instead of the many random explanations the dreams could be given by the magicians, Yosef’s explanation not only resonates with the unity that Paroah himself sensed in the dreams, but also explains them in a manner that unified the medium of the dreams with the message they were attempting to convey. However, as the story of Paroah’s dreams indicates, this difference goes far beyond the level of theory. This difference affects the very way we approach the world. Is the world simply a collage of disparate forces and intelligences all running according to their own plans, or is there an underlying goal, a plan, a unity? The prophets were sent to Israel to teach them that the forces of history are the tools of  ‘א. When we experience the world, when we feel the movements of history, it is incumbent upon us to remember their inherent unity, to remember that “over all the hills is God.[4]” An it is incumbent upon us to respond. We no longer have the institution of the  to teach us ‘א’s Will; rather, ‘א’s Will comes to us in the form of the Torah. When Yosef sees that ‘א is sending a drought, he responds by creating a plan to save the people. When we don’t know where history is taking us, we must respond by looking to the Torah.

[1] See comments of Abarbanel ad loc.

[2] I have written about the interplay between the Divine Word and human response here.

[3] This raises some problems for Yirmiyahu, who consistently predicted a destruction that did not manifest for years, and in the meantime he was accused of being a false prophet on the basis of these verse. For more on this, see Yirmiyahu 26 & 28.

[4] A.J. Heschel, “Towards an understanding of Halakha”; Playing off Goethe’s “The Traveller’s Night Song II”.

Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)