Quick to Forget – Parshat Vaera 5782

It’s difficult to recall the sensation of pain, even if the pain was incredibly traumatic at the time it occurred. After a physically painful event, including everything from childbirth down to a mild burn from hot coffee, our brains are wired to stop sending those pain signals eventually, even while memories of the event persist. Those memories can result in a behavior change without us having to physically relive the pain. For example, you’d probably remember to request a “mild level” of heat on your next order of Thai food without having to physically recall that time you ate a hot pepper by mistake.

But what happens when the physical or emotional pain doesn’t lead to changes in behavior? We see just such an example in the Torah this week from Pharaoh. 

Parshat Vaera, this week’s portion, begins the Israelites journey away from Egypt. This week we find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. And Moses isn’t so sure of himself anyway.

Throughout the narrative in this week’s portion, we see the infamous back and forth of Pharaoh and Moses. The plagues inflict pain and suffering, and of course Pharaoh wants it to stop, so he relents and accepts Moses’s plea to let the people go. When he does, the suffering ends. Then, as the Israelites are preparing to leave and Pharaoh is no longer suffering, he changes his mind and makes them stay. On and on and on this little dance goes. 

When Pharaoh is in the midst of his pain, it seems as if he’s capable of human compassion, considering the suffering of the enslaved Israelite people. However, as he “recovers,” he loses that sense of compassion. In fact, in chapter 8, verse 28, Pharaoh actually hardens his own heart; he makes the distinct choice to inflict suffering on others when he himself is no longer in pain, and it’s ultimately to his detriment.

While it’s impossible to physically feel the exact same suffering as someone else, there’s an element of empathy that comes from experience. You don’t have to guess what a paper cut might feel like when someone else gets one; the wincing you do is because you’ve felt it in the past, and even though you can’t physically share that sensation in real time, you can appreciate what that person is going through.

Sadly, some of that empathy has been traded in for the convenience and artificial anonymity of being able to shout our opinions, insults, and conspiracy theories into the public arena without any concern for whom they hurt or what it feels like on the receiving end. My hope is that we use Parshat Vaera and the lesson of Pharaoh as a reminder that compassion is perhaps our most important human gift.

Magic and Miracles and Bowling – Parshat Vaera 5781

When I turned nine, I had a bowling birthday party. All my friends gathered for pizza and cake and some afternoon at the local lanes. Full disclosure: I am and have always been a terrible bowler, and back then there were no bumpers blocking the gutters or those handy ramps to guide the ball down a straight line. So every time I would step up for my turn, I’d do the same thing. I’d let the ball go, and then as it rolled down the lane, I’d lean my body in the direction I wanted the ball to go. If it was too far to the left, I’d lean to the right, and if it was too far right, I’d lean to the left. I have video proof that I did this. Obviously moving my body after the ball had already left my hand wasn’t going to have any kind of impact on where it went as it rushed towards the pins, but in my young mind, I could magically change the fate of that ball.

We all engage in this type of thinking at some point. You may call it wishing, dreaming, or perhaps even praying, but we’ve all been in situations we wanted desperately to change but without having any real control or power to change. The thing is, if the ball had actually changed course, it wouldn’t have been magic, it would have been a miracle.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vaera, illustrates this difference when it shares the magical thinking of Pharaoh and his “magicians.” This week we find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. Furthermore, Moses isn’t so sure of himself to begin with.

When Moses and Aaron, with God’s support, approach Pharaoh to convince him to let the Israelite nation go, Pharaoh and his courtiers want to prove that the unseen Israelite God could not possibly be more powerful than they are. In an attempt to use marvels and magic to prove their power, Pharaoh’s courtiers start going toe to toe with God and Moses. 

This really comes down to magic versus miracles. How can magic, which is based in the human realm, compete with the miraculous doings of God? Of course God’s miracles have ability and greatness well beyond the limits of human power. And perhaps more importantly, where magic is imposing your will on another object or human, miracles cannot be controlled or invoked. 

Parshat Vaera and the struggle between magic and miracle is a struggle I relate to. Too often we’re consumed with making magic happen, and we miss the real miracles in front of us. Sadly the pandemic has only highlighted this shift. While we magically connect over Zoom and FaceTime, we’ve lost – at least temporarily – the miracles of human connection and of voices coming together in song. At the same time, it’s the “magic” of science that makes us optimistic for the future. In Vaera magic and miracles are on opposing sides, but let’s envision and create a world in which they, like us, are hand-in-hand once again.

From a Long Line – Parshat Vaera 5780

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I love meeting people who knew my father or my grandparents. I take great pride in the work they accomplished in their lives and in their communities and the lasting relationships they made. And when I meet someone who knew or worked with a family member, it’s like I’m uncovering something new and special about them and about me. In fact, about a year and a half ago, I was getting ready to officiate a bar mitzvah service, and one of the guests stopped me in my tracks when he asked, “Are you Steven Posen’s daughter?” Apparently he’s known my father and my family for years. Here I was, clear across the country from my childhood community, and I was recognized for who I’ve come from.

When I was younger, I used to want to be completely my own person. I’d even get a little frustrated when people would link me to my family, because I thought it meant they were passing judgment or not taking the time to get to know me. Now that I’ve matured some and learned some, I take great pride in being connected to the people who came before me, and I relish the moments people are able to make that connection.

The Torah carries with it the story of our heritage and our Jewish “family” line, and we see that increasingly more clearly as the Israelite nation moves from slavery to freedom. This week we read Parshat Vaera, the second portion in the second book of the Torah. The Israelites are in Egypt, working for Pharaoh, and they’re having decrees levied on them daily, which control all aspects of their lives. 

When Moses rises as the leader of the Israelites, he is pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and his people. God partners with Moses and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and manipulate Pharaoh’s heart as a method of persuasion. 

As Moses is getting ready to go to Pharaoh and make his case for the release of the Israelites, he initially has trouble gaining the respect of the very Israelite people he is trying to redeem. Having grown up in the palace, the Israelites are quick to dismiss Moses as “other.” As a pep talk of sorts, the text interrupts the narrative with a genealogical list. Why this departure? Perhaps because this list of people reminds the Israelites that their leaders are not confronting Pharaoh as two anonymous strangers, but as the newest representatives of an illustrious ancestry.

While you cannot rely solely on those in your past to propel you into your future, there are plenty of times when it’s helpful, if not necessary, to remember where you’ve come from. Parshat Vaera is that reminder that you’ve got an entire nation of Israel with you.

Yichus – Parshat Vaera 5779

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As we go through life our experiences and interactions link us to each other. When we build these relationships we end up with a network of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances that we carry with us. If you do any online social networking, you probably know this is the model behind LinkedIn: who do you know, how do you know them, and what skills or services do they have that you or your other acquaintances might benefit from?

Yes, many things in life are about who you know. In Yiddish this is called yichus, the connection and honor bestowed on you by knowing another person of honor. This is common when referring to long familial lines of rabbis or a prominent political figure. In a less public arena, your yichus might be your great-grandparent and their friends, or perhaps that feeling when you move to a new city and find a close connection that suddenly makes you feel welcomed into the larger community. Yichus, the close tie to others, brings a sense of peace and connection as we navigate the world.

Yichus also plays a prominent role throughout our Jewish story. For example, the connection in daily prayer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah helps us tie the entire narrative together. Parshat Vaera, this week’s portion, is no different. This week we find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. And Moses isn’t so sure of himself anyway.

In chapter 6, verses 13 and 14, we see our text pause and take note of our lineage once more while the people are again refusing to listen to Moses. The text pauses in the middle of our narrative and serves us up a genealogy leading to Moses and Aaron’s parents. This is their yichus. But why now? Our commentators suggest that perhaps the timing is because Moses and Aaron might have needed this reminder of where they’ve come from. They’re not imposters; they have a long line of leaders, Levites, and heads of households behind them who have been leading this people for generations.

Furthermore, maybe the people need the reminder too. That’s not to say that just because your grandfather was a top notch surgeon, automatically you will be too (I wouldn’t trust that logic), but it is to remind us that we at least have the support and backing of our ancestors and of our community when we take bold steps in our lives.

Yichus is all about who you know, but it’s also about how you know them and what happens when you support one another. I, for one, am grateful that my Torah and my yichus connects me with each of you. Shabbat shalom.

 

Selective Hearing – Parshat Vaera 5778

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I often wonder whether my voice is somehow mysteriously muffled like the adult voices in the animated Charlie Brown movies, or if perhaps I am just not a clear speaker. It occurs to me that occasionally my voice becomes the background noise to the rest of life. Sometimes it’s when I’m asking Shiri to put her shoes on, other times it’s relaying to Duncan the schedule for the day, but I find myself having to repeat things three times before a task gets done or even remembered.

I’m not totally innocent either. When I was a child, I’d selectively hear what my parents were asking me when it served my purpose, although sometimes this got me into trouble because I missed an important instruction or reminder. Selective hearing has a positive side, too. It can be a great self-preservation tool so you don’t go nuts with all the idle chatter around you. All of these thoughts led me to wonder what it means to actually listen.

This week we read Parshat Vaera, which kicks off Moses’s official role as the leader of the Israelite nation. His job is to convince Pharaoh to “let his people go” and to convince the Israelites to go with him. The text begins with God reminding Moses about the generations-long covenant that was made, but Moses shows he is still hesitant in his leadership. Moses and Aaron then go before Pharaoh to plead their case for freedom and begin to bring the first seven of the ten plagues upon the Egyptians.

What’s interesting to note is how selective hearing plays a role in the major steps Moses needs to take. Moses is told by God to go to both Pharaoh and the people and get both parties to listen to him and follow his direction. In each case, there is selective listening at play. When Moses first goes to the Israelites, they completely disregard his leadership. They perhaps hear him, but they don’t listen to his words. This happens again with Pharaoh; he goes and delivers his message, threatening him, and Pharaoh doesn’t take the threat seriously. Ten times in total Pharaoh hears the words leave Moses’s mouth, but does not listen to what they mean. This act of hearing but not actually listening is the cause for great strife among the Egyptians and leads to severe consequences.

So often in our lives we can see that people have something to communicate, but we don’t truly listen to what they’re sharing with us. This week’s parshah, Vaera, is a stern reminder of our obligation not just to hear what others are saying, but to internalize the message. In the news, on social media, at home, too many words are thrown around without enough regard to what they mean. It’s time we paid attention.