Shabbat Vaera 5776
As we begin the narrative of the plagues in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vaera, we are amazing by the miraculous happenings in Egypt. While scholars and even filmmakers (such as Ridley Scott in last year’s abysmal Gods and Kings) suggest nature-based explanations for each plague, that’s not the Torah’s point. These are presented as wondrous actions that targeted Egypt in general and, often, Egyptians in specific.
One of the interesting questions that occupies traditional commentators is what happened to the Israelites during the plagues. Sometimes, the Torah specifically mentions that they were spared the horrors of a plague; other times, the Torah is silent on the matter. And when the Torah is silent, the rabbis jumped into the open spaces with midrash.
Here’s one particularly daring midrash about the first plague,dam, blood: “What wonders did the Holy One perform with blood! For when an Egyptian would see a container of fresh water in the possession of an Israelite, and would say, ‘Please, give me a drink,’ as soon as he would take it, the water would turn to blood. Then he would suggest that he and the Israelite might drink together from the same vessel, but the waters would split up, with the Israelite half remaining fresh, and the Egyptian half turning to blood.” (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 19)
You may have just rolled your eyes, as did most of the lunch-and-learn students when we came across this midrash years ago. But the story of any of the plagues, or the Sea splitting, or the sun standing still for Joshua, are all equally preposterous. Should we differentiate between Biblical wonders and rabbinic fantasies? On Friday evening, we’ll hear from our “scholar-in-residence,” Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, and think about the role of myth in our religious identity.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise