Friday, January 27, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5777–Alternative Facts (Not What You Think It Is–Or Is It?)


Once upon a time, there was this Pharaoh, and Moshe and Aharon. G”d heard the complaints of the Israelites stuck in bondage in Egypt, and sent Moshe and Aharon to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh is not disposed to do so, and is unimpressed with a few parlor tricks. So – bring on the plagues.

OK.The Nile turns to blood. The text says there was blood in all of Egypt. Then Pharaoh’s magicians repeat the trick? But how – if ALL throughout Egypt the water had turned to blood, what was left for the Egyptian magicians? Then it says that all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water because they couldn’t drink the water from the Nile. So which was it? Was all the water in Egypt turned to blood, or just the Nile? Or just portions of the Nile? Also, seeing how turning the Nile (and/or other waters) to blood was not beneficial to his people, why would Pharaoh order his magicians to repeat the feat, this bringing more suffering to his people? Sloppy writing, sloppy editing.

Then Aharon holds his arm with the staff over the rivers and brings forth the frogs which COVERED the land of Egypt. Once again, Pharaoh asks his magicians to duplicate the feat. Same questions. If the frogs were everywhere, where did the Egyptian magicians bring forth frogs? Since the frogs were hurting his land and people, why would Pharaoh ask his magicians to bring forth yet more frogs? Logistically inconsistent.

Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon and asks them to plead with G”d to remove the frogs. Then, inexplicably, they ask him “when?” I’ve a whole musing on that subject alone. One of my favorites (which I updated just last year again: If you like Monty Python-esque humor, you’ll appreciate this one.

Yes, scholars argue that it could be that the Egyptian magicians were attempting to reverse the spells. That, however, is not the plain meaning of the Hebrew, and in my book, is eisegesis (imparting meaning into the text, as opposed to exegesis, deriving mean from the text.) Alternative facts?

Then dust turns to lice. Only this time, when Pharaoh asks his magicians to repeat the feat (and again, all the same questions) they cannot. Well, isn’t that special for the Egyptians. Already plagued by lice, they don’t have to contend with more.

Arov - whatever that is. The traditional consensus is that the word means a mixture, therefor a collection of assorted things. The two primary rabbinic understandings are either a mixture of animals (wild beasts) or a mixture of insects and other small pests and vermin. There are yet other explanations. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks it means “animals of the aravah,” that is, the wilderness. Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) thought it meant wolves. Another theory attempts to link the Hebrew arov with the Egyptian word for Scarab Beetle, an animal sacred to the Egyptians. Hertz makes an oblique reference to that in his commentary. I’m inclined to support the mixture of insects/pests view since the text says the arov came into the houses of the Egyptians. The JPS translation also uses insects. Yet each year at Pesakh most of us still refer to the “wild beasts.” Tradition.

Animal pestilence. No magicians involved here (as far as we know.) But wait – maybe they were. Because now we come to boils, where is says that the magicians couldn’t do anything because they had the boils, too. Hmm. Does this mean they were involved in trying to duplicate the arov and animal pestilence?

G”d tells Moshe to announce to the Egyptians that G”d has specifically not wiped them out in order to  see G”ds power (i.e. making them suffer more.) Sigh. G”d tells Moshe to tell the Egyptians that if they move their animals and property indoors they will be safe from the coming hail. So now I’m really confused. G”d announce that G”d is deliberately increasing the suffering of the Egyptians to make an example of them, yet in the same breath tells them how to save themselves and their animals and property from the coming plague? Is G”d feeling guilty? Having second thoughts? The text tells us that some Egyptians did heed the warning and moved their animals and property inside to protect it from the hail, while others did not. So there were some “righteous Egyptians” or at least some worth saving from G”d’s wrath if they chose to believe the warning?

The hail is devastating, this time Pharaoh says “I stand guilty.” Your G”d is right, and I and my people are wrong; plead for us. Moshe goes to plea for them, but tells Pharaoh they still don’t fear G”d. How does Moshe know this? Because only some people protected themselves, property, and livestock?

The hail ends, and soon Pharaoh goes back to his defiant ways. Pharaoh’s heart is stiff again. The verb form is plain – it (the heart of Pharaoh) was hardened. It’s not reflexive, so it doesn’t imply Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Then it says “Just as G”d had foretold Moshe.” Only G”d hadn’t foretold this to Moshe in this particular instance. So what gives? Another alternative fact?

Pharaoh’s had one way of dealing with facts they didn’t like. They rewrote the history. Seems we took some of that with us when we left Egypt.

For some, the Torah is fact. Anything that does not agree with Torah is therefore not fact to those people. Oh, the cognitive dissonance that must create.For me, Rabbi Larry Hoffman summed it up nicely in this article:

If we accept Hoffmann’s thesis, we do not need to trouble ourselves with whether or not the Torah presents facts or alternative facts. (If you’ve read Hoffman’s article, you’ll understand why I started this musing as I did.)

Though Torah teaches us how to live, it doesn’t really teach us what fact is. In fact (pun intended) the Torah seems to have a fair share of contradictions, puzzles, mysteries, and even competing and conflicting stories. There is, nevertheless, one clear lesson I derive from this. Alternative facts can only exist in a fictional world.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A,. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Va'era 5776 - Why Tomorrow (Revised 5757/62/66)
Va'era 5775 - Brighton Beach Last Stop! (Revised)
Va'era 5774 - Tomorrow, Again
Va'era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

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