Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 48

Questions to Ponder This Shabbat

January 15, 2021

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well, and also staying safe and healthy. While we are all optimistic regarding the potential distribution of the vaccine, we encourage you to be diligent in terms of health protocols. Due to my teaching position at the Leffell School, I am scheduled to receive the vaccine next Sunday, in Westchester. I will let you know how it goes!

We are now entrenched in the cycle of Torah readings from the Book of Exodus. This week, in Parashat Vaera, we learn of the first group of plagues and Hashem’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart.

From a theological perspective, this is one of the most troubling situations in the Torah. How can we hold Pharaoh responsible if God is guiding his stubbornness? Also, what of Pharaoh’s free will?

Many answers are provided by our commentators. One of those answers is that God’s initial position is prophetical, and had Pharaoh not acted so maliciously at the beginning of his encounters with the Hebrews, God would have annulled his own decree.

Another suggestion is that while we know that, in part, the plagues “had to occur” to demonstrate God’s omnipotence to the polytheistic Egyptians, even more importantly, the flexing of “Divine biceps” was specifically for the education of the Hebrews themselves.

Finally, Sforno, a fifteenth century Biblical commentator suggests a self-reflective process. He notes that, “the basic lesson in ethics we derive from all this is that when suffering an affliction, we must first and foremost examine our past actions to find out where we went wrong; and try to find out what these afflictions are intended to trigger in our memory so that we can improve our conduct both vis-à-vis God and our fellow man.”

As we move forward, God willing, towards the end of the plague of 2020 and transition back to “normalcy,” perhaps Sforno’s idea is worth consideration. Perhaps, we should look at what plagues the world and troubles our society, on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.

Three times in the Book of Isaiah we are encouraged to allow God to assist us so that we can fulfill our universal mission: "I the LORD have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people's covenant, as a light unto the nations." Isaiah 42:6

Perhaps a two-pronged question for this Shabbat to ponder is: How can we be the determinants of ethical and compassionate behavior in the New Year? How can we rise to God’s challenge and genuinely become a light unto the nations and to ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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