09 Jan Smoke & Mirrors
By Jodie Friedman
In this week’s parasha, Vaera, we take a deeper look at the signs and marvels found in the Torah. In preparing for this d’var, I read the English translation of Vaera–the title of which literally means “I appeared”–and of course explored some commentary, but mostly, I watched The Prince of Egypt. In less than two hours, this fantastical piece of sing-a-long gold takes us through Moses’ life and shows us a version of the Exodus both clear and exciting enough for all of us to absorb.
The first time I watched The Prince of Egypt twenty years ago, I was absolutely terrified of the scene where Moses confronts Pharaoh. Something about it felt sinister and eerie, and even for someone who knew the story of Passover, I felt anxious. For those who need a refresher, here’s how it goes: after an encounter with G-d through the burning bush, Moses returns to Egypt in a first attempt to free the Israelites from slavery. He is greeted by Moses’ adopted brother Rameses, now Pharaoh, who is ecstatic to see his long lost brother has come home to join him on the throne. After a little small talk, Moses speaks to Rameses with trepidation, using his iconic line, “let My People go”. The mood changes, and Rameses no longer feels the kinship toward Moses he previously had. Then, the most amazing thing happens: Moses shows the power of his G-d when his staff turns into a snake, rightfully confusing the Egyptian onlookers. In response to the discomfort Moses brought to the crowd, Pharaoh’s advisors use potions and illusions to turn tricks that are meant to distract everyone from the Hebrew G-d. Why would Pharaoh want to distract everyone from the Hebrew God? Because God goes against the beliefs that the Egyptians had, which included worshipping many Gods.
So while this is how it happened in a movie retelling of the Exodus–the most notable difference is that the film didn’t include Moses’ biological brother, Aaron, who accompanied Moses to Egypt and also had his staff turn into a snake–it is close to what is written in the Torah. And the beauty of this one scene in particular gives us a little more detail for this weeks Torah portion. The feeling that Godanswers when we ask, that we can ask at all, lives in the same place in my mind as the rainbow over Noah’s Ark. There are signs around us; some grand, some minute. Yet unless we are told to look for them, they get lost in the mundane, or worse, get trapped behind the loud and boisterous.
Sometimes, we don’t see the magic in simplicity. And we often don’t know what to make of the special things that come our way. The onlooking Egyptians were at first clearly made nervous by Moses’ “staff into snake” moment, and so to show dominance and power, Pharaoh’s advisors distracted everyone with a performance. Moses and Aaron didn’t flinch. They knew that the “smoke and mirrors” approach was not nearly as special as God’s’s power, yet they knew without performance, humans tend to respond with apathy.
Then, Moses’ line. What was it? (Let my people go.) We’ve sung songs, read books, seen movies that all describe Moses turning into the leader the Israelites were in desperate need of. If you ask me, Rameses should have known Moses’ words were important, because it was a big deal that he was speaking in front of all these people–as a child Moses burnt his tongue, which gave him a lifelong speech impediment of which he was ashamed. The wonder of Moses finding confidence to lead, this is no small feat. I for one am proud of Moses using his voice, a voice that was strong and assured by his God. Again, the marvel of God’s influence is not to be forgotten.
It is at this point we come to the ten plagues and I feel like this sermon could write itself. Starting with something “small”–turning the longest river in the world, the Nile, into blood–G-d proves God’s boundless power and Moses’ trust. Pharaoh still doesn’t buy it, as his advisor-slash-magicians are able to produce results that are close enough to Moses and Aaron’s. My personal favorite plague comes next: frogs. It’s as if G-d says, “if you won’t free your slaves, I will annoy you with amphibians.” Since Pharaoh is stuck in denying the legitimacy of Moses’ god, it is no wonder he isn’t ready to take the threats seriously. From this point we stumble down a path that eventually becomes dark with the plague of darkness. Pharaoh looks to the magicians to reveal Moses’ secrets, and each time they match G-d’s plagues and Pharaoh is satisfied. Until we reach the tenth and final plague, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the slaying of the first born. That’s for next week, so we’re not quite there yet.
While this Dreamworks masterpiece is truly one of my favorite movies, the moment I wish had been brought to life in The Prince of Egypt is the end of Vaera, where Moses tries a different approach for the seventh plague. Moses feels that he is so close to getting Pharaoh to release his people, but to really drive home the point, he said, “I shall spread out my hand to the Eternal; the thunder will cease and the hail will fall no more, so that you may know the Earth is the Eternal’s.” Can you imagine, being able to control the weather? If this couldn’t convince Pharaoh that he was about to be on the wrong side of history, there truly was no hope.
In Vaera, G-d appears before Moses, and Moses appears before the Israelites. He came out of a pretty sweet deal at the insistence of his God–being a shepherd in a Bedouin village with his wife Ziporah, his cool father-in-law Jethro, and a lot of sheep. Moses thought he could run away from a life that was stolen for him, ruling over Egypt; a miracle, no doubt, that he fully recognized. But G-d would catch up to him, in the form of the burning bush and then staying with him in spirit and instilling confidence. Moses would not deny the marvel of G-d’s presence.
Fast forward a couple thousands years. We, in 2019, are complacent to so much on this beautiful planet–frogs of all types and rainbows galore and random weather that changes dozens of degrees in the matter of days and sometimes hours–the reasons why Moses led us out of Egypt. He left a simple life as a shepherd in the desert so that scores of Jews after him could thrive and live and mourn and grow. While we have the Earth we do, let’s make sure to show our appreciation for those small wonders, and nurture what we have now so that it may survive for future generations. As Moses led his people out of Egypt, he knew he could not also lead them into the land flowing with milk and honey. As we weave the story of our lives, may we keep in mind who comes next. Our history is passed through parent to child, from generation to generation, in and out of seasons. We are accountable to the people who we represent, and we must breathe in the fresh air as a stark reminder that unless we put forth the effort, unless we perceive the miracles of everyday life, Moses’ accomplishments were for naught. I look forward to seeing what our students do with their lives with the Jewish paths we help them pave, and the world we leave for them.