QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND ON RASHI’S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd
Questions marked with a * refer to Rashi’s commentary.
1. *How may the opening words ‘I am G-d. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, be seen as G-d’s rebuke to Moses?
2. *Why are the genealogies of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – but no other tribes, listed in this Parasha?
3. Did G-d actually ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ as He declared he would before the Plagues commenced?
4. What fraction of his life had Moses spent by the time he stood before Pharaoh on the threshold of the Ten Plagues?
5. Which plagues were initiated by Aaron, *and why?
6. How do the text and *Rashi’s commentary suggest that the third plague – that of lice – was a greater miracle than the first two?
7. In which two places in the text does Pharaoh actually break his word?
8. How did the fates of the frogs in the second plague differ from the wild animals in the fourth plague, *and why?
9. What, according to the text, were the true purposes of the Plagues?
10. *Moses declared that he had to actually leave the city to pray for the hail and fire to stop crashing down. Why?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND ON RASHI’S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd
1. This is for the following reason. The end of the previous Parasha relates Moses’ protest to G-d that his mission had caused the lot of His people to deteriorate instead of to improve. The opening words of this Parasha relate the substance of G-d’s reply to Moses – in the form of a sharp castigation. G-d speaks harshly to Moses, and He compares him unfavorably with the Patriarchs who maintained their faith without complaint, even though they went through much suffering and anguish and did not live to see the fulfillment of G-d’s promises to their descendants. By contrast, Moses’ protest: ‘Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you send me?’ (5:22) implied lack of faith even when told that the Redemption was at hand.
2. The simple explanation (actually expanded by the Ramban) is to illustrate that Reuben and his tribe retained the rights of the firstborn in regards to genealogy – that right not extending to Moses and Aaron however great they were. Rashi, quoting Midrashic sources, states that the Torah confirms the first three tribes’ importance despite Jacob’s sharply reproving them before his death.
3. Although G-d said that He would ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ (7:3), he did not actually do so until after the sixth plague (9:12). This issue is discussed by the commentaries and taken up in answer to question 3 in the next section.
4. Moses was already eighty – two thirds of the way to his hundred and twenty years – at the time he stood before Pharaoh (7:7), on the threshold on initiating the events that were to set the Exodus in to motion.
5. The first three plagues: blood, frogs, and lice, were initiated by Aaron and his stick. The reason Rashi gives broadly follows the principle of ‘do not cast stones into the well from which you drank’. Thus Aaron, rather than Moses, used the stick to make the Nile turn to blood and expel the frogs onto dry land, and the dust to turn into lice. Such an action done by Moses would have shown ingratitude to the waters of the Nile which were instrumental in saving his life as a baby, and to the dust of Egypt which concealed the dead Egyptian that he himself struck.
6. The text states that although Egyptians sorcerers could replicate the first two plagues, turning dust into lice was beyond them (8:14). Rashi implies that units of dust are too small for sorcerers to work on.
7. Pharaoh declared after the fourth and seventh plagues that he would release the Israelites to serve G-d in the wilderness, but on both occasions he changed his mind after the plagues stopped, thus breaking his word.
8. The frogs did not return to the Nile, but died on land and putrefied it (8:9-10). ‘He (G-d) removed the wild animals… not one remained’. (8:27) Rashi states that dead animals had commercial value for hides; dead frogs were foul-smelling and useless. The plagues were for the enrichment of the Egyptians.
9. The true purpose of the Plagues was not only to put increasing pressure on Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but to establish in Egypt that G-d is the Almighty and above all humans and idolatry. ((7:4-5)
10. The reason is that Pharaoh’s metropolis – rife with idolatry – was an unsuitable location to approach the Divine Presence in prayer. From that, it may be learnt that one should only pray in appropriate surroundings Rabbi Fishel Todd.
QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAEIRA
1. What, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, are the precise events alluded to by the four expressions of redemption (6:6-7) which have since been linked with the four cups of wine at the Seder?
2. The Holy Land promised to the Israelites is not merely a ‘yerusha’ – an inheritance, but a ‘morasha’ (6:8) – a heritage. What is the meaning of that difference according to the Ha-emek Davar?
3. In the first five plagues, ‘Pharaoh’s heart hardened’ and in the final plagues ‘G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart’. The latter implies that Pharaoh had no free choice – in the later plagues, he could not have released the Israelites even if he wanted to. How does this justify the further plagues and suffering for not releasing the Israelites – according to (a) Rashi, and (b) the Sforno?
4. The Hagada relates that R. Judah groups the Ten Plagues into three: ‘detzach, adash, be-achav’. What, according to Marcus Lehmann (in Lehmann’s Passover Hagada) is the point that Rabbi Judah is making?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd
1. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, the four expressions of Redemption refer to four very specific stages of the process, namely:
(a) ‘Vehotzeiti’ – I shall take you out (from the burdens of Egypt) – subsequently linked to the first cup of wine – denotes the end of the actual slavery which, following Rabbinic tradition, stopped some six months before the actual Exodus.
(b) ‘Vehitzalti’ – I shall save you – subsequently linked to the second cup of wine – refers to the actual leaving of Egypt.
(c) ‘Vegaalti’ – I shall rescue you – subsequently linked to the third cup of wine – refers to the splitting of the Red Sea in the face of the pursuing Egyptians.
(d) ‘Velakachti’ – and I shall take you – subsequently linked to the fourth cup of wine – links with the spiritual climax of the Redemption: the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
2. The Ha-mek Davar makes the following distinction between ‘yerusha’ and ‘morasha’. The former is something that belongs to the person when he is in possession of it. The latter is connected with the person even when not in possession. Thus the Holy Land was a ‘morasha’ to the Israelites even when they were slaves in Egypt and throughout all the succeeding exiles.
3. According to Rashi, G-d did actually deprive Pharaoh of free choice after the sixth plague, as the text states that He ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’. That is because his level of corruption was of such a degree that G-d’s only purpose in keeping him alive was to use him as a means of demonstrating His Power and His Might (7:5), and the implied folly of relying on sorcery and idolatry. The Sforno understands the words ‘G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ differently to Rashi. They do not mean that he took away his free choice, but that he expected a higher degree of repentance. G-d’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart meant that He gave Pharaoh more strength to absorb the suffering of the plagues. Were he to repent, it would not be because of the pain, but out of sincere and true repentance; in the spirit of acknowledging that ‘G-d is the righteous and that I (Pharaoh) and my people are the wicked’. (9:27)
4. According to Lehmann, the rhythm of ‘detzach, adash, be-achav’ is the rhythn of the plagues. The Nile turned to blood – outside people’s homes. The frogs actually entered the houses, and the lice went one better – got into people’s actual flesh. Logically the next plague should have killed the people off entirely – instead, the wild animals terrorized those outside near the wild, the pestilence went a little closer affecting property (cattle), and then the boils, like the lice, actually got to the people themselves. With the seventh plague the cycle repeats itself… the hail destroyed crops outside, the locusts were a little more intimate, but it was the darkness which, like the lice and the boils, actually bought normal existence to a stop. (Thus the three cycles of ‘far, closer, and closer’ were a ‘three time warning’ to Pharaoh.) But after the Plague of Darkness, Pharaoh did not see it that way. Instead, he assumed that the next plague would be the start of the fourth cycle. He was wrong – as he ignored the first three sets of warnings, the tenth plague was the logical extension of the third cycle: further away / closer / still closer / and then (at the Killing of the Firstborn) closest: namely death.
ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION ON PARASHAT VAYEIRA
1. Moses spoke before G-d: “Behold the Israelites have not listened to me – how will Pharaoh listen to me? I have sealed lips” (6:12). Bereishit Rabba (92:7) states that this is one of the ten times where the kal va-homer (a fortiori deduction) appears in the Torah. Why was Moses so sure that Pharaoh would not listen to him? And in addition, why didn’t Moses give the more obvious reason – that he had been unsuccessful, as G-d had told him, and it was now time for Him to intervene? G-d had told Moses that the Redemption from Egypt would not take place through Moses directly, but through Divine intervention: For I know the King of Egypt will not let you go… I shall set forth My Hand and smite Egypt… and afterwards he will let you go (3:19-20). Moses and Aaron had already pleaded to Pharaoh once, and he responded by intensifying the sufferings of the enslaved Israelites.
2. The Passover Hagadda links the ‘strong hand’ and the ‘outstretched arm’ to the Plagues that G-d imposed on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, to persuade them to release the Israelites. As the Hagadda relates:’With a strong hand’ – that is the plague of pestilence (fatal animal disease), as Moses warned Pharaoh, ‘Behold the Hand of G-d is on your animals – horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, to bring them a very heavy pestilence’ (9:3). Why was the ‘strong hand’ of the Exodus related specifically to the plague of pestilence – the fifth out of the ten plagues? What special qualities did the death of the Egyptians’ domestic animals possess over and above the other plagues, so that it was the crucial one that helped the Israelite Exodus to take place?
Rabbi Fishel Todd