Thursday, December 30, 2010


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT VA-AYRA:  2010/5771


The background of the Torah teaching of this week is the run-up to Moses’ announcing the first plague to Pharaoh. Moses was not comfortable with his mission. His initial encounter with Pharaoh had been profoundly disappointing. The King had not only been dismissive of him, but had also retaliated by increasing the burdens of his Hebrew slaves. Their bitterness was not at all surprising: “And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way as they came forth from Pharaoh; and they said unto them: you have made us odiously foul-smelling in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.” (Ex. 5:22-23). Moses had responded by directing his frustration at God: “And Moses returned to the Lord and said: ‘Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name,, he has dealt ill with His people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.’” (Ex. 5:22-23). But God persisted: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Go in and speak unto Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.’” (Ex. 6:11-12). Moses had responded famously: “Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?!” (Ex. 6:12). Having confidently assured Moses of the imminent salvation of the Jewish people, God now prepares him for the encounter:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron, saying: When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, ‘Show a Ex. for you [lakhem]’; then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cat it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent. ‘” (Ex. 6:12).

God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron are puzzling. For one thing, if the transforming staff was meant to convince Pharaoh of something, why does our text read: ‘Show a wondrous sign for you [lakhem]’? It should have read for him [lo]!  For another, how was a trivial magic trick supposed to convince Pharaoh? Indeed, the royal magicians could easily do the same trick: “And Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast every man his staff and they became serpents.” (Ex. 7:11-12).

These difficulties disappear when we understand God’s real message. It was not Pharaoh who could be convinced by the staff, but the Hebrew slaves. It would require no fewer than ten terrible plagues and pressure from his own followers  to ultimately persuade the Egyptian King that God indeed could and would redeem Pharaoh’s slaves--not a transforming staff.  At this stage of the redemptive process, it was clearly Moses, Aaron and the Jews who needed convincing.

Moses and Aaron had experienced frustration and disappointment through the initial failure of their mission. They therefore needed to be convinced that the old way in which    representatives of the slaves had dealt with Pharaoh had outlived its utility. Begging for relief was no longer an option.

Because people adjust to even the most terrible conditions, the dehumanized Hebrew masses had learned how best to cope with the Egyptian bondage, and even distorted their perceptions of the dreadful experience: “And the children of Israel said unto them:’ would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, and we did eat bread to the full, for you have brought us into the wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex. 16:3). Clearly, they needed to be convinced that their coping mechanisms of the past were not their best option for surviving in the future. Hence God declared: “: When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, ‘Show a wondrous sign for you [lakhem]’; then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent. ‘” (Ex. 6:12).

But how was a transforming staff to convince them? What did a staff’s becoming a serpent symbolize for them? Rabbi Bentziyon Zaks explains the meaning of the divine lesson with penetrating insight: one relies on one’s staff for stability, to prevent one from falling, and for self-defense. But one should not believe that what has worked to keep one safe in the past will do the same in the future. What gave one comfort and support in the past can, without warning, transform and destroy in the future. One’s staff can become a poisonous snake.

The truth of this bitter lesson has been repeated many times in human history. It is a truism that nations fight today’s wars with yesterday’s tactics. The parenting strategies of previous generations are not necessarily effective with contemporary children—and yet, leaders often fail to adapt, until their old staffs have done grievous harm to those who relied on their leadership, and old pedagogies have hurt new generations. How many children were turned off Torah by the punishing approaches of teachers who could not communicate in English, and who were stuck in behavior patterns that had been comfortable for them in the old country. However, you can no more effectively fight today’s battles in coats of armor  than  win the hearts of children with a “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy.

Jewish history is punctuated with disastrous instances of staffs suddenly becoming poisonous serpents. The economic power of medieval Jewry was its staff. So comfortable were communities with the security gained by using that power, that they could not even imagine the possibility, that their success would provoke hatred and lead to expulsion. Could a community, for example, which for 700 years had provided various Spanish regimes with foreign and finance Ministers, diplomats, funding for their wars and imperial expansion, and scientific and cultural innovation, foresee inquisition and exile in 1492?

The Weimar Republic was deeply indebted to Jews for art, science and finance. German Jewry had leaned on its staff of acculturation and assimilation, multitudes turning their backs on their Jewish identities as their strategy for success. Sigmund Freud could deny his knowledge of Hebrew and be scornful of the faith of his ancestors, and many Jewish  artists and intellectuals could “accept” Christianity as pathways to respectability.  Could an extraordinarily successful Jewish community, “more German than the Germans” ever imagine their fellow citizens as Hitler’s willing executioners?

What is true collectively is also true individually. We are all too often stuck in old habits. Survival strategies that we have learned as young children are carried into adulthood—with awful consequences. A brilliant young woman came for help with her commitment phobia. Whenever she had been engaged, she had managed to sabotage the relationship. As an infant, she had indelibly stained her father’s beautiful new suit. His stinging “You are a clumsy idiot. You will never be anything” played endlessly in her head. Her  coping strategy was to become perfect--at school and work. But the tape kept playing in her head. Notwithstanding her amazing accomplishments, she considered herself an inauthentic fraud, “ a clumsy idiot […who] will never be anything.” So she rejected her suitors before they discovered who she really was and rejected her. What had worked for the child was destroying the adult. Her staff had become her serpent.

An enormously successful tycoon sought counsel because could not sustain intimate relationships. His father had frequently beaten him for  his poor academic performance. The lesson he had learned from his father’s brutal enforcement of study regimens was to please nobody but himself. He would show his Dad that he did not need to excel in school to become wealthy.

But his staff had transformed into a serpent. Because he had convinced himself that he needed to please nobody but himself, he had become incapable of the mutuality of real love. He had success, but his success had prevented him from experiencing real happiness.

This was God’s lesson to Moses and the Hebrew slaves. It is also His lesson to us. Only when we are, ourselves, convinced that our staffs can become serpents, when we are ready to alter comfortable, but non-adaptive ways of being, can we face our future with real confidence.

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