Boiling Point:Va’Era 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: How do we react when the ways we always did things no longer work? How do we best adjust to new realities?

Our Torah portion this morning offers a brief look at Pharaoh’s magicians. Prior to the 10 Plagues, these sorcerers reliably proved the might of Egypt’s kingdom; but with every passing plague, they are stripped of their effectiveness.

Text: “So they took soot of the kiln, and appeared before Pharaoh; Moses threw it toward the sky, and it caused an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast. The magician-priests were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magician-priests as well as all the other Egyptians.” (Exodus 9:10-11)

Commentary #1: “Moses afflicts the Egyptians with boils. The sorcerers, summoned to work their countermagic, don’t even show up; they can’t, because they’re covered with boils. The increasing feebleness of their dark arts makes for great black comedy – and hilariously effective testimony for God’s power. The sorcerers are the gangster’s dumb sidekicks … they’re the cringing flunkies who do every tyrant’s dirty work, and it’s wonderful to see them meet the deserved misfortune of flunkies everywhere.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Commentary #2: “Even before this plague, the Egyptian occultists had recognized the greatness of Moses’ powers. Therefore, whenever they were in his presence, they would stand as a sign of respect. After this plague, however, they no longer even had the audacity to stand in Moses’ presence, but prostrated themselves to the ground. They might have been able to provide logical explanations for the previous plagues, but this one was completely beyond their comprehension.” – Abarbanel

Commentary #3: “The magicians suffered as well. Their power in relation to Moses and Aaron had been broken with their inability to replicate the gnats. Now their solidarity with Pharaoh was also broken. They could not stand before Moses because of the boils.” – James K. Bruckner, New International Biblical Commentary

Follow-Up Questions: Plotz focuses on the magicians’ darkly comedic fate. Abarbanel notes that the episode shows the magicians at wit’s end, unable to understand how this plague was possible. Bruckner claims that the magicians were alienated from Pharaoh.

Do you feel bad, even a little bit, for these magicians? Do they get what they deserve? Or do you see them as victims of Pharaoh’s continual refusal to emancipate the Israelites? Can we identify with their frustration, with the realization that they can no longer serve Egypt in the way they always had? How would you advise these magicians to move on with their lives, to redirect their talents for work not associated with the Pharaoh? And how might we use that kind of advice when our lives are in need to reexamination and rebirth?

Emanu-El Happenings: The escalation of mass shootings in the United States is an issue that hits home with many of us, especially here in Charleston. As I said during my sermon this past Yom Kippur, we have a moral obligation to do what is in our power to reduce the odds of future incidents. An organization known as Gun Sense SC formed shortly after the Mother Emanuel massacre this past June. The organization has reached out to houses of worship across Charleston, and has designated the last Sabbath of January to stand up and raise awareness for its work. Gun Sense SC is “an independent, grassroots group of South Carolinians working hard to close the gaps in laws that make it too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — while supporting the Second Amendment right of citizens to lawfully own guns.” Our Synagogue’s board approved last month a proposal to join KKBE at Shabbat evening services on Friday, January 29th, at 8:00PM, so we may advocate for reasonable gun safety measures. Please join us.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s always gratifying when the National Baseball Hall of Fame selects new inductees, and Ken Griffey, Jr., and Mike Piazza clearly deserved to be elected this year. But it’s also disappointing when other qualified players (such as Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines) fall short yet again. But, at the very least, I suppose that the controversy surrounding one player’s inclusion and another players exclusion provides healthy discussion of what it means to be a baseball immortal, and of how we best evaluate the game’s rich history.

Shabbat Shalom!