For the week ending 16 January 2021 / 3 Shevat 5781

Parashat Vaera

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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G-d tells Moshe to inform the Jewish People that He is going to take them out of Egypt. However, the Jewish People do not listen. G-d commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and ask him to free the Jewish People. Although Aharon shows Pharaoh a sign by turning a staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians copy the sign, emboldening Pharaoh to refuse the request. G-d punishes the Egyptians and sends plagues of blood and frogs, but the magicians copy these miracles on a smaller scale, again encouraging Pharaoh to be obstinate. After the plague of lice, Pharaoh's magicians concede that only G-d could be performing these miracles.

Only the Egyptians, and not the Jews in Goshen, suffer during the plagues. The onslaught continues with wild animals, pestilence, boils and fiery hail. However, despite Moshe's offers to end the plagues if Pharaoh will let the Jewish People leave, Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and refuses.


The Pandemic and the Endemic

“…but with My Name Hashem I did not make Myself known to them” (6:3)

One of the side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is claustrophobia. Recently, I went to visit my mother (who, bli ayn hara, is more than half-way through her nineties), in England, and as the plane left the sky and we crested the white cloud cover and broke through to the blue, I had a feeling of exhilaration that reminded me of the first time I ever travelled in a plane. I realized that I was feeling the liberation from being cooped up like a battery hen. The psychological effects of this disease may turn out to be more pervasive and long lasting than the illness itself.

Even before the pandemic, our generation was already suffering from endemic low self-esteem. Enforced isolation has exacerbated this to new levels.

The name of two of the Tribes of Israel bear a striking resemblance: Yehuda, the most exalted of the tribes, is called "Yehuda Gur Aryeh" — “A lion cub is Yehuda.” (Ber. 49:10) However in the Book of Devarim, the lowliest of the tribes, Dan, is also called Gur Aryeh, "Dan Gur Aryeh" (33:22). (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 13)

Dan was the tribe that was so steeped in the idol worship of Egypt that they carried their idols with them into the sea when it split. Idol worship was so endemic in the tribe of Dan that the mystical "Clouds of Glory" that accompanied and protected the Jewish People in the desert would not accompany them. (Pesikata d'Rav Kahana – Piska 3:12)

What can link the lowest with highest?

In the Torah portion of Vayechi, in the middle of his blessing to Dan, Yaakov seems to suddenly stop and exclaim, "For Your salvation do I long, Hashem!" Ostensibly, this sudden exclamation has no connection to the blessing that Yaakov is giving. On a deeper level, however, this is the essence of Yaakov's blessing to Dan.

There's a famous Midrash that compares different kinds of Jews to the four species of Succot. The lowliest is the Jew who has neither Torah nor good deeds, who is compared to the Arava — the Willow that has no fruit, no taste and no aroma. Why is the lowly Arava part of the four species? And more, why does it have its own special day during Succot — Hoshana Rabba?

The awesome power of the Arava is that despite its lowliness, it yearns and it thirsts for connection to Hashem, just as the Willow thirsts for water and typically grows by a river.

The Tribe of Dan, despite its lowliness, yearns for connection to Hashem: "For Your salvation do I long, Hashem!"

It is this yearning that makes the Tribe of Dan worthy to be given the same name as Yehuda, the Prince of the Tribes.

We are now reading the Book of Shemot, literally the Book of Names. In our current situation, it is easy to lose track of our identity — of our value, our place in this world — of our name. We may be in the lowest part of world history, cut off and lonely, but our yearning for connection, for spirituality, to be close to Hashem, can raise us to the levels of the greatest.

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