Five Rashis, VaEra: What We Can and Can’t See

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

The phrase “there are none so blind as those who will not see” has been traced to the 16th century John Heywood, a writer of plays, poems, and proverbs. I found this week’s Rashis by my usual methods, looking for comments that I haven’t heard widely bandied about, elucidating them as well as I could, and then looking back for a running theme.

This week, to the extent that it has one, the theme is one I have been noticing in many contexts recently, that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Until a Generation Goes

6;16 mentions that Levi lived 137 years. Rashi, on the words ושני חיי לוי, argues that knowing his life span helps us time the slavery portion of the Jews’ time in Egypt, since (and this is the point that struck me) the slavery did not start as long as one of the original tribes was alive.

Back in the first chapter, the Torah said Yosef and his generation died, and a new Par’oh arose, who did not know Yosef. Reading only that chapter, we’d have thought Yosef’s presence, physically and/or in the Egyptians’ minds and memories was the barrier to enslavement.

This Rashi adds that the living presence of any member of that generation was enough. It reminds me of the famous story told by Yaffa Eliach in Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, where a German soldier could not send a Hasidic rebbe to his death, because before they war they had exchanged morning greetings daily. Even those who have shed much of their humanity sometimes retain enough of it to prevent them from mistreating people they know personally.

The descendants of the original generation were just Hebrews, whom the Egyptians had no trouble mistreating.  Levi himself they knew, in a context that meant they could not look him in the eye and start the persecutions.

The Equality of Moshe and Aharon

In 6;26, the Torah puts Aharon before Moshe in saying “It was this Aharon and Moshe, to whom Hashem said, ‘take the Children of Israel out of Egypt.’” The next verse closes with the words “this same Moshe and Aharon.” On the words הוא משה ואהרן in verse 26, Rashi notes that the Torah is inconsistent about the order of their names, and explains that it’s to teach us that they are valued equally.

I found it interesting because I doubt most people would see it that way. I think most of us have favorites between Moshe and Aharon. Some would see Moshe as obviously more significant, having led the Jews out of Egypt and through the desert, received the Torah on Mount Sinai, had the experience of Hashem that taught us the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that we still invoke in hopes of avoiding the punishment we deserve.

Others prefer Aharon, the man who led the people in Egypt, willingly stepped aside and became second fiddle to his brother, became the Jews’ beloved peacemaker, the High Priest who secured atonement for his brethren, and who brought them close to Torah.

Their models are so different we feel almost compelled to take sides. Rashi sees the Torah as indicating that that’s an error, that they each filled their roles in ways that garnered equal praise, and made them equally important.

Non-Jews as Ends to Hashem’s Means

On the words ואני אקשה (I will harden) in 7;3, Rashi reads Hashem as saying to Moshe that it is clear to Him that alien-worshipping non-Jews get no satisfaction (נחת רוח) out of repenting, and therefore do not do it wholeheartedly. That being true, Hashem says, it’s better to harden Par’oh’s heart, to extend the time in which Hashem can do signs and wonders, so that the Jews will see My might.

Rashi adds that Hashem frequently does that, brings punishment on alien worshipping non-Jews for the Jews to hear, inspiring in them greater awe and fear of Hashem.

One could read that Rashi (as others have read Ran) as saying that Hashem punishes non-Jews purely to teach Jews a lesson, but that neglects the first half of the comment. Rashi started by saying that non-Jews get no pleasure out of repenting, and therefore don’t set their minds on full repentance.

To my understanding, Rashi is saying that the non-Jews have sinned in ways that make them liable for all that they’re getting. They could have avoided punishment only by repenting fully, wholeheartedly, and with some נחת רוח, some delight at having rectified their relationship with Hashem.

That has implications for them and for us. For them, it means that they only become the vehicles of Hashem’s teaching us a lesson when they’ve opened themselves up to punishment anyway. Once they deserved all Hashem sent them and failed to repent, Hashem chose to spread out the punishment over many plagues, to teach us a lesson.  But they didn’t get any more than they already deserved.

It would also seem that, for Rashi, repentance is only effective when it is wholehearted, not grudging. Those who don’t long for repentance, who aren’t excited about it, who don’t put themselves fully into it, will not reap all its benefits. In the case of Par’oh and the Egyptians, they instead became teaching tools.

How Hard Is It To Pray?

After the plague of wild animals, Moshe leaves Par’oh’s presence and, 8;26, prays to Hashem to remove the plague. Rashi notes the use of the verb ויעתר, which he understands as נתאמץ בתפלה, Moshe put great effort into the prayer. Had it said ויעתיר, that would have meant he prayed at great length.

Rashi is focusing on the different constructions of the verb—had it been said in an active form, it would have meant Moshe was the one shaping the prayer, deciding that it should go on longer. In the נפעל, acted-upon form, it’s an expression of his great effort (which is said reflexively in Hebrew, meaning that the effort almost came out of him).

What Rashi raises but doesn’t address is why there should have been a need for length or effort in a prayer to remove a plague. Hashem didn’t want these plagues to continue indefinitely, and the time for their removal seems to have been whenever Par’oh had gotten as much out of that plague as he was going to. Why did Moshe have to pray at all, let alone work hard at it?

Rashi doesn’t say, so I won’t share my own theories, but this is one among many Rashis that seem to me to point to Hashem’s leaving more of the Exodus up to the people involved than dictating Himself, as it were, how the story would go. Moshe had a job here, one he was not yet adept at handling (hence his sense that he’d need a great effort to secure Hashem’s response); he had to decide when the plagues should end, and then pray to Hashem to have that happen. And that prayer had to be convincing, whatever that means in terms of Hashem (I addressed some of these issues in We’re Missing the Point, a book I do hope you read, if you haven’t already).

Miracles Upon Miracles

When Moshe throws furnace-soot in the air to bring the plague of boils, Rashi notes, 9;8 on the words וזרקו משה, that there were several miracles. He assumes Moshe managed to throw all the soot he and Aharon collected (each of them using two hands) in one action, using one hand. Then, the soot he threw up in the air spread over all of Egypt.

There are other ways to take that. First, the Torah doesn’t require that Moshe only throw soot up in the air once; second, as Ramban notes, there could have been a wind to spread the soot over the land.

I raise this Rashi because it fits with two other of his comments, about the plague of boils.  In 9;24, the Torah refers to fire being inside the hail, which Rashi takes to mean that fire and ice/snow found a way not to nullify each other (the fire not to melt the hail, the hail not to extinguish the fire). Then, in verse 33, when the hail is being stopped, the Torah says the rain לא נתך ארצה, no longer poured down on the land. Rashi comments that that means that even the rain that had already been falling did not reach the ground. It evaporated.

Rashi is finding miracles when he equally could have found other explanations. Moshe could have thrown some soot in the air, not all of it; the fire and ice could have been somehow separate, so that they didn’t affect each other; and the rain could have stopped from heaven to earth, with any rain that had started finishing its descent to earth, but that was it.

It seems like Rashi “wants” to find miracles, found himself resonating with readings of the text that multiply those.  For Rashi, the experiences of the plagues were far out of the ordinary, far enough (I think he means to imply) that the Egyptian failure/refusal to submit to Hashem is a notably stubborn closing of their eyes to of what was in front of their faces.

When we see our difficulties in mistreating those we know personally, when we see Moshe and Aharon take their respective places at the head of the Jewish people, when we see the results of the Egyptian refusal to repent with any enthusiasm, when we see Moshe struggling to find the right prayer to stop the wild animals, when we see miracles within miracles, what do we and don’t we see?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.