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Vaera 5782     January 1, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Moses begins this week’s parsha disappointed. Not only did Pharoah reject his demand to let the Israelite slaves go, but just asking to free the slaves has made the slave life more difficult. Like any good despot, Pharoah figures that if the slaves have time to contemplate freedom, then they are not working hard enough. So, he demands they keep up their production of bricks for his building process even though he will no longer provide straw to make the bricks. Now the Israelites must work twice as long to produce the same number of bricks.

     So now, Pharoah is angry with Moses, the Israelites are angry with Moses and Moses complains to God, that he did not want this job anyway and Moses is clearly not doing a decent job freeing the slaves. What is the point of this whole task anyway if it is only making things worse for the Israelite slaves?

     The Midrash tried to unpack God’s response to Moses. The Midrash sees God as rebuking Moses for his lack of faith. God notes that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob only knew God as “El Shaddai;” they never knew this new name that God has shared with Moses. And yet when God promised them that their descendants would inherit the land, they did not lose faith in God. I can understand why the Israelites were despondent. Suddenly, after all these years, God finally will take notice of them, and all they see is that things are worse. As slaves, they do not know anything other than slavery, and this God with the new name has done nothing for them.

     I understand the mentality of the Israelite slaves, because it is a common human point of view. Someone promises something new, it does not deliver right away, so everyone gets depressed that nothing will ever change. Presidents in this country have a four-year term in office but we judge them on how they spend their first one hundred days. We track polls every day to see what kind of a job the president is doing that day. If the results are not immediate, then before the first year is up, the president is already a failure. Human beings are very impatient.

     And it is this very impatience that causes us so much trouble. Think about how upset we get when things do not work out as we expect the first time through. We get angry, frustrated, we throw up our hands, throw down the towel and give up trying anymore. We see pictures of perfect things on Instagram and Facebook and wonder why we cannot make such perfect creations. It does not matter if the pictures come from people who have perfected their art for dozens of years, we give it one try, and then quit in frustration.

     We see commercials of very fit young people who use expensive exercise equipment, and they have perfect bodies. So, we buy the equipment and after a couple of weeks, we are still nowhere near as fit as they were in the commercial. So, we give up, we will be hopeless couch potatoes. We see pictures of perfectly made cakes and pies, but when we try to make them, they never turn out the way they look in the pictures. Clearly, we are a failure at baking. We think we can sit down and author a great novel, but somehow, we never get more than just a few pages into the first chapter. Writing is a lot of work and after a while, we just stop working on it anymore.

     I find it interesting that when we watch an action movie, the hero never succeeds on the first try. Sometimes they have one failure after another until everything is hopeless before they realize that there is still something they have not tried that might still save the day. To be a hero means you can never, ever give up.

     I think this is one of the lessons of our Torah reading this morning. Moses has no idea about the resources he has at his disposal to change the mind of Pharoah. God slowly reveals to Moses, as well as to Pharoah, the power that is behind the “request” to “Let My People Go.” We will see the first two rounds of plagues designed to chip away at the stubbornness of Pharoah. Pharoah thinks he is a god and that the God of Israel is not as powerful as Pharoah is. But the Nile turns to blood, the land is overrun with frogs, the sky is infested with flies. Then the plagues start being closer to home; all the cattle of Egypt die, then the Egyptians are covered with painful boils.; then a horrific hailstorm destroys all the crops the Egyptians have grown. Pharoah is starting to waver, but we end this week, not knowing what it will take to make Pharoah give up his slaves.

     The point here is that it will take no less than ten tries to bring freedom to Israel. Nine times Pharaoh will make promises and then break them. Nine times he will find excuses for why he still has more power than the God of Israel. His own advisors tell him that he clearly is going to lose this battle with God, but Pharoah expects Egypt’s gods to protect him. But we also see that as the plagues progress, not only does Pharoah look weaker, but Moses is getting stronger. Moses begins to see that each setback will bring up even greater wonders for Israel against Egypt.

     We do not know how long it takes for the plagues to convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go. We do not know how long Moses pleads on behalf of the people before Pharoah. Did it take days? Weeks? Months? Years? It hardly matters; the conflict between Moses and Pharoah will eventually reach its climax and Pharoah will be destroyed. Israel is destined to be free.

     Ilana Kurshan, author, and commentator in Jerusalem, writing for the Fuchsberg Center in Israel tells the following story:

     “All too often the anguish of our present reality seems strikingly at odds with the future we wish to envision. About a month ago, the New York Times ran a Metropolitan Diary column by a woman who remembered her first Friday night in the big city. It was a freezing winter evening, and the woman was all alone. With nothing else to do, she walked up and down Broadway looking into restaurant windows; she paused when she saw a couple sharing a pizza, each holding up their slices as if making a toast. The lonely woman felt sure that she would never find that sort of intimate companionship, but sure enough, fifteen years later, she and her husband were sitting in a pizza shop on a cold winter night. Remembering her first Friday night in the city, she held up her slice of pizza as if making a toast. This woman’s “pizza toast,” like God’s words to Moshe, is a reminder that our human perspective is inherently limited, and only God knows when and how our destiny will ultimately unfold. Rather than despairing at the bleakness of the present moment, we might raise a toast in hope and faith to a brighter, more redemptive future.” 

     She gets what this parsha is all about. Using our life experiences, which are usually extremely limited, we make our judgements on where we are going in this world. When we get sick, we think we will always be sick. When we fail, we think we will always fail. When we apply for a new job and get rejected, we think that our job search is hopeless. We have a limited horizon that we can see, and we just assume that on the other side of that horizon, things will all be the same. There is little room for things to turn out different.

     I was amused last week when President Biden promised a half a billion home COVID tests for our country and right away everyone said that it was not near enough to stop the pandemic. But I thought to myself with this infusion into the public of this many tests, it will give the drugstores more time to acquire their own supplies of test kits so that, eventually all who want such a test, can get one simply and easily. It could happen. Why do we assume that after a half a billion tests are distributed, that everything will be the same as it was before the tests were handed out?

     We are on the threshold of a New Year. We can look back on 2021 and be disappointed. There are many different news organizations and media firms that are featuring retrospectives of the year that is ending. What turned out to be the most notable events of the year? Who died during the past year? What trends can we discern in the movies we watched and the music we listened to? Who was the Person of The Year? Who won important awards in 2021? I find it all interesting and, because I like history, I like retrospectives to compare what we have finished to other years in the past, to see if we have learned anything as the years have gone by.

     But all of this is irrelevant when it comes to predicting the future. If the coronavirus has taught us anything it is that we cannot really see more than a few weeks into the future. The past does not predict the future. The best it can do is to hint at what “could” happen if everything from last year remains exactly the same in the new year. As Ms. Kurshan says, the perspectives of human beings are always limited; only God knows the future. “Rather than despairing at the bleakness of the present moment, we might raise a toast in hope and faith to a brighter, more redemptive future.” 

     I often say that “worry is a waste of good imagination.” We can just as easily imagine a better future than what we have now. If we like what we imagine, then we can work hard to make that future happen. Like Moses, we cannot get too caught up in the immediate failures. We have to keep focused on the larger picture. As Theodore Herzl said, “If we will it, it does not have to be a dream.” Who could have predicted that suddenly, there are so many electric cars on the road that we have to increase our infrastructure so recharging them will become easier? We have no idea what will happen in the new year and what surprises it may have in store for us.

     So, toast the new year. With pizza if you wish, and then, let us all get focused on building the kind of world we will want to live in. With freedom, security, safety, health, and prosperity for everyone; and may we have a better relationship with the environment and with the other creatures with whom we share this planet. The new year is not a time for looking back, it is a time for looking ahead to the future we are prepared to build.

     May God give us the wisdom, strength, faith, and fortitude to overcome our disappointments and frustrations so we can keep our focus on building that better world as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784