Details and the Fulfilled Life

The story of the 10 plagues has a comic relief: Pharaoh's magicians. This bunch of hapless sorcerers make four appearances during the 10 plagues. The first two, blood and frogs, they are able to replicate. This serves to harden Pharaoh's heart, as it diminishes the supernatural aspect of those plagues. Pharaoh is not impressed, since human magicians can do these things too.

The third plague, lice, marks a turning point. Bringing lice out of the dust of the earth proves to be too much for the magicians. They are unable to replicate it, and thus they proclaim, "It is the finger of God." (They make one more nonappearance in the story, at the plague of boils. There, we are told that they were unable to even stand in front of Pharaoh, as they were afflicted as well.)

Let's focus on lice. Two things puzzle me. First of all, the obvious question of why were the magicians unable to create lice, if they were able to replicate the first two plagues? What was so difficult? Secondly, the plague of lice was to be initiated by Aaron striking the dust. Why not Moses?

Rashi answers both questions. As for the magicians, Rashi tells us that their powers are limited to objects larger in size than a grain of barley. Since lice are smaller, the magicians were unable to influence them. And as for Aaron hitting the dirt in place of Moses, it was because of gratitude. The dirt of Egypt had saved Moses, as it concealed the Egyptian whom he had killed. Therefore, Moses had to demonstrate gratitude to the dirt by not being the one to strike it.

Both of Rashi's answers bring up new questions. Why can't the magicians function when their subject is smaller than a barley grain? What difference does it make? And why is Moses obligated to show sensitivity to dirt, an inanimate object without feelings?

Let's tackle the second question first. Jews cover the challah on Friday night while they make kiddush on a cup of wine. Do you know why they do that? It's because, in theory, challah could also have been used for kiddush, in place of wine. Since the wine is getting the honor, the challah might be embarrassed. So we cover it.

Now the same question applies! Challah is inanimate, it has no feelings. What are we protecting? My teacher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, explained that we are protecting our own character. By showing sensitivity towards inanimate objects, we are training ourselves to show sensitivity to our fellow human beings. In other words, we are chiseling our character traits to the finest detail. We are expelling insensitivity from our souls, even as it relates to inanimate objects.

This is the reason why Moses could not strike the sand. It is because Judaism requires tremendous detail in the shaping of our character. Each word of the prayer service should be said carefully, each requirement of every mitzva should be fulfilled with great attention. Does God really care about that? Yes, he does, because it is through those details that become more and more spiritual. Spirituality is the ladder to reach and connect with God. And God really cares that we connect with Him!

I always wondered how glue worked. After all, two smooth surfaces should not be able to be connected to each other without a nail or screw. How does glue, a liquid that will dry just as flat as the surfaces, actually hold them together?

It's two things: the details and the large surface area. The seemingly flat surface is actually porous, and it is the nature of the glue to enter those pores and then clasp them. Secondly, unlike a nail or a screw which connect one or two points, glue must be spread out across the whole surface to be most effective. And thus, the verse "And you, who are glued to God your Lord are alive today!" takes on significant meaning. We are glued to God by the details of our mitzva observance and spirituality, and by our total commitment of our lives to these things. The details and the totality, together.

Impressionistic art notwithstanding, we are always moved by a beautiful portrait or scenic painting. The more detail, the more realistic the painting and the more we enjoy it. God created a world full of details, down to the smallest things. Ever sit and watch an ant doing its work? It's miniature, but it's beautiful and fascinating. The more spiritual, the more detailed and thorough.

The physical world, however, likes big. Hedonists always want more. Pharaoh's magicians came with the power of the physical world. And earthly magic requires earthly materials, not spiritual ones. The spiritual materials are minute, detailed. A physical magician has no power over spirituality. Thus, they couldn't manipulate lice or anything smaller than a certain size.

When a Jew observes the minutia with great care, he or she is climbing the ladder of spirituality and touching the gateway to heaven. The higher one climbs, the more careful their footing must be. God wants us to enjoy the full beauty of this world, a physical space where one must seek spirituality in the details, in the little things. "The rock [the Painter] creates perfect work…". God is the cosmic painter, painting in a level of detail that is the magnificent world we live in. By paying attention to details, we see more of God's glory and climb the ladder to spirituality.

So never be defensive if someone asks you if you think God really cares. Answer that He does, because He wants us to be spiritually powerful, and capable of appreciating the full incredible beauty of all of creation.

Who Really Killed the Egyptians' Firstborn Sons?

There are two main differences between this 10th plague and the nine that preceded it that I wish to focus on. First of all, in all of the other plagues, the Israelites were spared automatically. For this one, though, they are given explicit instructions as to what they must do to be spared. They have to prepare a sacrificial lamb, smear the blood on their door posts and lintels, and eat the sacrifice together with matza and bitter herbs. Further, they must eat it in a state of readiness to depart, with staff in hand.

The second difference is that this plague is preceded by a number of seemingly tangential commandments, especially the one about tefillin, or, phylacteries. These are small boxes containing chapters from the Torah that are tied onto the arm and the forehead during prayer services.

Why these differences? Why is it so critical for the Israelites to perform this sacrificial ritual, and what is the relevance of the commandment of tefillin?

God does not engage in punishment as vengeance. When there is divine punishment, it is didactic. It is to teach man to correct his ways. Jewish tradition teaches that God's punishments are "measure for measure," meaning that they directly address the sinful attitude of the transgressor. This is no more apparent than in the most famous of Biblical dictums on Justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a leg for a leg, and so forth.

In many parts of the world, this principle is interpreted literally, and that is a tragedy. Jewish law states that what is required by this dictum is monetary compensation, not the amputation of the limb of the aggressor. Simple justice requires this understanding! Let's say, for example, that a singer cut off the hand of a pianist. Is justice served by cutting off the hand of the singer? The pianist has lost his livelihood, while the singer can continue unharmed! That is not justice.

But there is a more fundamental understanding of this dictum that we must learn. It is that punishment is not vengeance. Those who interpret this literally make a tragic mistake, understanding punishment as a form of doing to the aggressor what he did to the victim. He caused the victim great pain, so he should suffer accordingly. What this understanding says is that the past is what matters. A. caused B. to suffer in the immediate past, so he must suffer as well.

That is not what the Torah teaches. When we evaluate the monetary worth of the severed limb, and require the perpetrator to pay that, we are stressing two things. First of all, that the future is the most important element. The aggressor has denied the victim their capabilities for the future, and it is that which must be compensated. Secondly, it focuses the aggressor on what he has done to the victim. He must think of how he has changed that person's life. We have suddenly moved our focus from the perpetrator himself to the other, to the victim.

Now we can explain the plague of the firstborn in greater depth. Egypt was a completely self-absorbed nation. It was the home of all manner of sexual licentiousness, and a pagan belief system that elevated material possessions and wealth and power. It was a society that lived for pleasure, that lived for today. This goes in direct opposition to human nature.

Human nature is built upon planting trees, upon beautifying the world for others, for the future. Our spirit drives us to sacrifice our rest and sloth to go out and build something for posterity. For this, our children are not only recipients, but transmitters into the continuing future. We are not to teach them to pursue pleasure, we are to teach them to pursue responsibility and posterity.

The Egyptians taught their children something else. They taught them hedonism, materialism, pursuit of fleeting pleasures and possessions. God brought the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn, as a lesson to the Egyptians: by living your lives according to your false values, you have spiritually killed your own children.

We see in the world around us tragic examples of child destruction in a spiritual sense. How can we watch the Isis terrorists teaching young children to kill without our feeling deep sadness and revulsion? And if those children get killed in some future battle, who are the real killers? I would say the grown-ups who trained them to walk down that tragic path.

Thus, the Israelites must prepare for this plague as well by reaffirming their commitment to the future. They are to eat the Passover sacrifice in readiness to march, staff in hand. This entire ritual is to cause them to embrace the future, to commit to transmitting their spiritual heritage to their children, their children's children, and beyond, into eternity. By doing this, they save their firstborn spiritually, and they are spared the plague of the Egyptians.

What is the legacy they are to transmit? In one word, Torah. God's Word is the spiritual life of the universe. The tefillin, with the four chapters of Torah within them, must be tied upon our arms and our heads. They must guide our actions and our thoughts. They are the keys to the future, they are the keys to giving spiritual life to our children. The answers to all of life's mysteries and questions can be found in the Torah, but only by delving deep into its secrets. This commitment is what gives us life, and what gives us true meaning.

How to Use Your Name

When Moses meets God at the burning bush, he asks Him a strange question: "When the Israelites asked me what is Your Name, what should I tell them?" God then responds, "I Shall Be that I Shall Be. Thus you shall tell the children of Israel, I Shall Be has sent me to you."

This is a strange kind of a name! Now, I wasn't expecting "Charlie", but I was expecting one of the Names of God that we frequently use. This is more of a statement of how God will continue to exist in the world, but it's not a name! God will be present, God will be existing. Is that actually a name?

The book of Exodus, in Hebrew, is called the book of Shemot, which means "names." It is the book of names, and it is full of them. The Rabbis of the Midrash teach us that a person has three names: 1. The name that God gives us. 2. The name that our parents give us. 3. The name that we give ourselves.

I believe this is teaching us a very significant lesson for life. The name that God gives us is not a name in the traditional sense. I believe it refers to the unique skills and gifts that God imbues each of his creations with. It is our talents and our abilities, our genetic makeup.

The name that our parents give us refers to our education and upbringing. Parents generally give a name to a child expressing their hopes and aspirations for that child. They will follow up the giving of the name with the years of education and teaching to help the child fulfill that name.

Finally, the name we give ourselves is the cumulative effect of the way we interact with the world. With this, we can understand the phenomenon of some of the Bible's names. For example, some of the kings involved in the first war, recorded in the book of Genesis, seem quite unusual. For example: Bera = in bad. Birsha = in evil. Shinav = hates his Father [in Heaven]. I highly doubt that these are the names that these kings were known by. These are the names that these men achieved for themselves, through their evil deeds. When the Torah tells us someone's name, more often than not it is the name expressing their character, not the name on their driver's license. It's the name he gave himself.

So it is with the Names of God. They are simply expressing how God relates to the world at that moment. God's message to the children of Israel, through His Name, is a very powerful one. "I Shall Be." In a world of evil and chaos, the people must know that God continues to exist, continues to be pure and good. They must believe that their bondage is only temporary. They must believe that the goodness of God can be, and will be, revealed. It was a message of encouragement that the Israelite salves badly needed.

The Rabbis in the Midrash claim that the Jews merited redemption from Egypt for having "not changed their names, their mode of dress, and their language." Question. The very same rabbis claim that the Jews had fallen to the 49th level of impurity, and had become guilty of idolatry in Egypt. Why, then, does the fact that they didn't change their names make any difference? What's in a name, if the person is a sinner? And if we are referring to the name one gives oneself through one's behavior, I could argue that they indeed did change their names! They changed them to idolatrous ones.

Rather, in the same spirit of "I Shall Be," we can gain greater insight into a name. Names do not change from day to day or year to year. A name is over a lifetime. God did not name Himself "I Am," rather, "I Shall Be." The name that we give ourselves is not based on our temporary behaviors, but on our overall life's goals and values. It's who we yearn to be, even though at the moment, we are not at that level.

Thus, when Moses asks God what the merit of the people is that will make them worthy of redemption, God answers, "When you take them out of Egypt, you will all serve the Lord on this mountain (you will receive the Torah here)." In other words, even though they are idolatrous and assimilated today, they have never changed their names, the names that reflect their dreams and hopes for the world. They are destined to stand tall at Mount Sinai! That is who they truly are.

Many people are "searching for themselves." I might only suggest that you begin that search with your names. You should look inside your heart to discover the name that God gave you, through your skills, dreams, and passion. You should look at the name that your parents gave you, your education, and, more, their aspirations for you. Based on that, you should assign yourself a name that you will achieve through your life's work.