Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Walk Article

TEACHING THEOLOGY

Va'era-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Teaching innovative ideas is very hard.  People are much better at absorbing material within their comfort zone of normative knowledge.  Most of the information we imbibe comes from the cache of experience handed down by our parents.  We feel at ease with stuff which our predecessors describe as part of their lives.  We have little trouble accepting the realities of driving, going to school, getting married or going to work.  However, a century ago explaining how to drive or how to fly was only for the adventurous.  Accepting revolutionary concepts comes hard for the vast majority of us.  Most of us now accept many principles, which were considered far fetched when presented.  Few understand the theory of relativity, but two of Einstein's predictions have been proven so many times that most people accept them without understanding the physics behind them. One phenomenon predicted by Einstein was that time slows down for something going faster than the things around it.  And, of course, since Hiroshima no one doubts that matter can be turned into energy.  Boom!!  This week's parsha is about teaching three such principles to the world.  One is relatively straight forward and is well accepted.  The other two are much more esoteric and are still yet to be fully integrated into most human's data base.

            To explain the complexity of this issue, let me go back to an interpretation from last week's Torah reading.  The S'fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847–1905) gave an innovative explanation for why Moshe demurred when God assigned him the role of redeeming Israel.  Normally, we assumed that Moshe's refusal was based on his speech impediment and the fact that he was viewed as an outsider by most Jews because he grew up in the palace and had spent the last 60 or so years in Midian.  However, the S'fat Emet suggests that Moshe was claiming that he couldn't lead these Jews, because he had a clear understanding of the nature of God and the Jews didn't.  When Moshe states that the Jews won't believe him (Exodus 4:1), it seemed that he was clearly wrong because when he comes to Egypt the verse says that they did (verse 31).  But the Rebbe explains that Moshe was correct, because they didn't believe what he was telling them.  They believed something else entirely.  This bothered Moshe, that the people understood such a limited vision of God.  Moshe felt that he could only lead those with his clarity about Divinity.

At this point God gives Moshe three signs.  God tells Moshe to throw his staff on the ground, and it becomes a snake.  Then God instructs Moshe to place his hand within his shirt and it becomes leprous.  Finally, God informs Moshe that he will take water from the Nile and turn it into blood.  The weird thing is that God says that if they don't believe this sign, they'll believe the next sign.  So, why give three signs?  Just give the sign which they will believe.  Why play this game?  So, the Rebbe explains that the three signs represent three different levels of understanding.  Some get it after one lesson; some need three lessons.  Our job is to get everyone to the required level of understanding.  Moshe accepts this tutorial in educational theory.  So, the Jews begin with level one knowledge base, but must reach level three.

This same scenario can be applied to the ten plagues.  God tells Moshe before the plagues begin that Pharaoh won't let the Jews go until the royal first born will be killed (4:23).  So, why not just do plague ten?  Because God had a lesson plan for the Egyptians, the Jews and Pharaoh.   The first nine plagues were to teach the three levels of belief represented by the three signs given to Moshe.  But what were the three lessons, which are also the three levels of belief in God?  We can learn them from the warnings given to Pharaoh.   Before the first set of three plagues, Moshe and Aharon confront Pharaoh and tell him:  So said the Lord, "With this you will know that I am the Lord." I will smite the water of the Nile, and it will turn to blood (7:17).  Before the fourth plague they again go out to meet Pharaoh with the following warning:  For if you do not let My people go, I will incite against you, your servants and your people a mixture of noxious creatures. And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand, that there will be no mixture of noxious creatures there, in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth (8:17-18).  And finally, before the seventh plague the following warning was pronounced: Because this time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth (9:14).

Three warnings with three lessons about God, namely: I am the Lord, I am the Lord in the midst of the earth, and there is none like Me in the entire earth.  In those days trying to teach that there is only one God was a difficult sell.  So, the first lesson is that the Jewish God is a God.  The next lesson was that this Jewish God has power even in Egypt, and, finally, they were taught that this Jewish God is the only God. 

Today the three part lesson must be updated to concepts which challenge our societal sensibilities.  Most people are willing to accept that there is a God or power who created heaven and earth.  However, many fewer see this Deity as involved in the running of the world, and an even smaller number accept that this Divine Power is the only force at work in our world.  Every generation is challenged by theological considerations.  But they change from era to era.  I think that our challenge is:  Do we accept God's guidance in our lives or do we find the adherence to the mitzvah system an alien idea akin to the newest ideas in physics?  The lesson of the plagues must be applied to our religious misgivings, too.                                                                                                                                     


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Monday, January 7, 2013

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