Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            It's an old trick for entertainment series to end an episode with an exciting predicament unresolved.  The enthralled audience will rush back for the resolution, usually only to be disappointed.  This art form originated in literature.  It was common for novels to be serialized in periodicals in the 1800's, and many readers keenly anticipated the next installment.  The actual term cliffhanger seems to have originated with weekly silent film serials, the most famous of which was the Perils of Pauline, with Pearl White.  People would crowd theaters every Saturday to see how she would be saved from imminent death at the hands of pirates, storms or onrushing locomotives.  It's possible that the actual reference which spawned the term was Ms. White literally hanging from the cliffs we call the Palisades overlooking the Hudson River from the Jersey side.  The most famous cliff hanger was from the TV show Dallas with the Who Shot JR episode ending their third season in 1980.  Even though we don't know the very first time this technique was used, our Sages employed it over a thousand years ago.  Last week's Torah reading ends with the Egyptians having suffered seven plagues and the Jews' redemption expectations again thwarted.  Therefore Jews flock to synagogue and Temple this Shabbat to find out how this adventure will end.  Well, maybe not.  But there is a method to this division of the material.

            Why did the Sages separate these readings in such a way that we have seven plagues one week and the remaining three a week later?  We don't usually separate material in this way.  There are commentaries who say that this planned arrangement is hinted at by the Hebrew name of this week's parsha, namely Bo.  That word has the Gematria or numerical value of three, clearly referring to the three plagues described in its narrative.  So, again why are these three separated from the other seven?  Reb Moshe Lichtenstein describes a few differences between the plagues of Va'era and those of Bo.  He explains that the plagues listed last week were to harass rather than destroy, they were removed only after a request from Pharaoh, and the magicians appear as Pharaoh's aides.  This week the plagues are destructive and life threatening.  The magicians are replaced by real advisors discussing not theology but matters of state.  And, finally, the new negotiations with Pharaoh aren't about a three day weekend in the desert, but actually leaving Egypt.  In every sense the ante has been raised. 

            However, the biggest suspense in this week's parsha doesn't involve Pharaoh.  It's about the Jews.  Two weeks ago, when Moshe told the Jews that he was sent by God and that the redemption was at hand, the verse records:  And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves (Exodus 4:31).  But last week, the verse records:  but they did not hearken to Moses because of their shortness of breath and because of their hard labor (6:9).  Others translate the shortness of breath phrase as discouragement, despondency, broken spirit, impatience, anguish, or beaten down.  So, now we can't wait to find out whether or not the Jews will go when crunch time comes.  This question seems like a no-brainer.  But the Midrash says that eighty per cent of the Jews were killed during the plague of darkness, because they wouldn't be able to break their connections to Egypt when it came time to depart.  I think that this Midrash is teaching us that our ancestors didn't find it easy to end their servitude to Egypt.  

            Maybe I'm asking the wrong question.  Perhaps, as I wrote last week, their inability to listen to Moshe wasn't about leaving Egypt, it was about committing to God.  The suspense is:  Would the Jews transfer their servitude to the Egyptians into a service to God?  Before leaving Egypt, there are a number of demands made by God to the Jews, apparently to test their loyalty.  The most famous of these requests is, of course, the taking of the Paschal Lamb four days before the departure, and displaying it proudly at every Jewish home.  There are also commands to eat the unleavened bread, keep the lunar Jewish calendar, and put the blood on the doorposts.  All of these demands by God could be compared to the Egyptians' orders to them as slave.  They're being told what to do, just by a new master.  Was there are a command which would clearly differentiate between slavery to Egypt and committed service to God?  Well, I hope so or this article is in trouble.

            Yes, there is!  The mitzvah is Tefillin.  Amongst the mitzvoth given to the Jews during this short window of time immediately preceding the tenth plague is the following:  And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt (13:9).  True slaves are expected to dedicate the work of their hands to their masters, but not the thoughts of their minds.  God is telling the Jews that they must dedicate to God not only the sinews of their arms, but also the synapses of their brains.  Our loyalty to God demands belief and reflection upon this relationship.  The Jewish commitment is total, body, mind, soul.  When the Jews bind these leather boxes, straps and texts upon our arms and foreheads then we'll know that they have listened to God and the Divine messenger, Moshe.

            Unlike the cliffhangers at a Saturday matinee, this cliffhanger is never resolved.  This damsel is eternally in distress.  Every generation is challenged by this test:  Will we hearken to the voice or will the distractions of the time equal the shortness of breath and the heavy work of so many centuries ago?  We are in a constant state of staying tuned to find out next episode how this greatest of cliff hangers will turn out.  Hang on tight!                  

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