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Archive for February, 2009

How much Chutzpah? I Told You So

Posted by rabbiart on February 2, 2009

Its the rare person who can resist the urge to say that certain something. Is there a parent anywhere who can watch their child and walk out the door to get behind the wheel of the car without saying “drive carefully”? The twenty something daughter of friends of ours stopped by before beginning a road trip.  Of course, I absolutely had the compulsion to say the benediction “Drive Carefully”!

At time we find ourselves compelled to give a different kind of pronouncement.  There are times it seems impossible to resist saying “I told you so.”

Even Biblical characters – or especially Biblical characters – can’t resist certain phrases coming out of their mouths. Here are the Israelites on the verge of escaping Mitzrayim forever, but up against the sea of reeds. Do they give thanks for everything they have recently experienced?  Do they encourage themselves to forge ahead with some verbal positive thinking. Of course not!


הֲלֹא-זֶה הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת-מִצְרָיִם: כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר


Is not this what we told you in Mitzrayim, saying “leave us alone and we will serve Mitzrayim, it is better for us to serve Mitzrayim than to die in the desert!

Nothing other than “I told you so!” but did they? In Shemot 5:21 the Israelites tell Moshe that (they fear) Pharoah will kill them by the sword.  At that point, they don’t want to get involved in freeing themselves; they don’t even want to take the risk of being free.

What does it mean to say “I told you so”? Often it is code for “you have screwed up…and now I have to pay the price…so now I am going to extract a price from you. “I was right. You were wrong so pay up by admitting I was right when I told you so. Sometimes it is a way of saying “me!, me!, me! The world is not thinking enough about me.”  At other times it is code for “I am afraid of what is going to happen.”

Why the fear? Because often life does not unfold the way we expect or want it to. Fear is the result, but sometimes fear can be the cause. Fear that another prediction of woe will be ignored and come true.

Beshalach opens with these words


וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא: כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה–וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה
וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר, יַם-סוּף; וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

When Pharoah released the nation, Elohim did not lead them on the Plishtim road; it was close. Elohim thought “lest the nation be fearful when it sees war, and return toward Mitzrayim”. Elohim led the nation on the wilderness road, toward Yam Suf. Bnei Yisrael went up armed from the land of Mitzrayim.

There is a powerful lesson in this story. Even before the Israelites come to apparent danger trapped between the pursuing Egyptians behind them and the waters before them, HaShem has already taken care of any danger to them. He leads them in a way that will be safe, and again provide a vivid demonstration of his power. Yet they (we) resist.  Because they wereliving in fear and did not recognize they were on the verge of their ultimate deliverance.

It is easy in our time and place to fall prey to the many ways of saying “I told you so.” Our country is undergoing wrenching changes, and all around us we see and hear takes of woe. In modern Israel our people seem again to be trapped on all sides by mortal danger. When we are already being delivered, if we can but recognize it.

Shabbat Shalom

and please…Drive Carefully

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The Final Plague

Posted by rabbiart on February 1, 2009

The “Ten Plagues”. To borrow from West Side Story “say it loud and its music playing, say it soft and its almost like praying.” However you say it, everyone knows exactly what you mean; just like the HaShem’s words at Sinai have been labeled The Ten Commandments. Of course neither set is actually labeled or numbered in the Torah. How do we know there are ten of each? Because everyone says so? Because the tradition decided? Or because ten is an orderly number and the human role is to bring order to a chaotic universe?

What makes a plague? Divine intervention into the natural flow of events? Something that cannot be duplicated by mortal human beings? The plagues are HaShem’s signs and wonders that freed us from Mitzrayim. Pharoah’s aides can duplicate all of the blood sign just as they can turn a staff into a snake. Arguably then, blood is not a plague despite what we say in the Pesach Seder. And since Pharoah’s magicians can make frogs (but not remove them), that is only half a plague.

Are the plagues really all that terrible? A great deal of discomfort is visited upon Egypt, but until the end, not a single person is injured, much less killed. Are we overly sensitive when we read the plagues? How many of have reacted, or heard others react with a variation of a theme on “G-d wasn’t very nice to Pharoah.”

(Remember this version of the plagues that has circulated for a number of years on the Internet, and who knows how long before that?)

I count 8 1/2 or 9 1/2 plagues before we get to Yam Suf. And compared to the death and destruction of modern – and ancient – warfare, how bad are they?

In our parshah we see a final plague that really lives up to the name “plague”; Pharoah’s hosts drowning in the sea, the last prelude to our redemption. As it began so it will end. HaShem instructs Moshe to wield his staff, this time to part the waters. Once already we have seen water become blood. Now we will see it again. What began with a demonstration of turning Egyptian water into blood will end with spilling Egyptian blood into water.

The plagues are celebrated both loudly and softly. After the Israelites emerge from the Sea, they sing a song of deliverance.  In synagogues where the morning davening goes page by page, the Song of the Sea is the penultimate prayer before the Hatzi Kaddish marking the end of pezukei d’zimra. It is soft; the custom is to daven it silently and to  stand while reciting the passage.  In the Shacharit service, an except from the song – Mi Chamocha – immediately precedes the the Amidah.  It is sung out loud and in some tunes, with great gusto.

At times I get a queasy feeling when davening these passages, but they are a part of, and a model of our history that has played itself out through our generations.  It might be the only useful model for the modern day Egypt in which we find ourselves embroiled now.

It’s an unpleasant thought to be sure. Sometimes blood must be shed for people to be free.

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