Category Archives: Va'era

Call of the Wild

[First posted on The Times of Israel:]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Vaera

 Call of the Wild

 “Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight; a home, a teacher, a companion.” -Lorraine Anderson

Pharaoh has a slave rebellion brewing. A discredited former prince of Egypt has taken up their cause. He is imposing and impressive, and though Pharaoh suspects Moses is resorting to cheap magic tricks, there is something threatening, even frightening about the tall Hebrew leader.

Pharaoh wants a break. But he is behind schedule and over budget on his grand construction projects. The priesthood has been snickering behind his back about his poor leadership and even questioning his divinity.

All Pharaoh wants to do is get out of the palace. He wants to breathe some fresh air and cool his heels in the soothing water of the Nile.

Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 8:16) claims that it was the custom of monarchs to go out to the river every morning. It is good for the eyes, Ibn Ezra explains. Imagine how flummoxed Pharaoh must have been to be greeted by Moses on his lone foray into the tranquility of nature.

May we remember the nature that we have access to, and likewise drink in its healthy and reviving effects (without rebel leaders interrupting our sojourn).

Shabbat Shalom,



To the snow! We’ve been blessed with a good six inches of beautiful, white, fluffy, snow-ball throwing, snow-man building, pristine snow! Followed by blue skies!

Discovering God

Ohr Hachayim Exodus: Vaera

 Discovering God

 “The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”

Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986)

About four millennia ago, the world was polytheistic. There was an ingrained, widely held belief that there was a multiplicity of gods. A god of the sun, of the river, of rain, of fertility, major gods, minor gods, gods in human form, gods with animal characteristics, gods of gold, of silver, of stone, of clay. Whatever the human imagination could construct, the human spirit could believe in.

In preparation for redeeming the Hebrew nation from the bondage of Egypt, God names each of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in His announcement to Moses. The Ohr Hachayim (Exodus 6:3) states that it was in the merit of each of these great founders of the Israelite line that the Jewish nation was released from slavery. The Ohr Hachayim explains what the greatness of each Patriarch was. In explaining the greatness of Abraham, he claims that it was for one reason alone: Abraham’s discovery of God.

The Ohr Hachayim declares that it’s no big deal to believe in God when you are taught so from childhood. To have the belief in God as part of your upbringing, culture and social reality is good and proper, but doesn’t compare to the challenge of someone who had to figure it out for themselves. Someone who can look at a pagan world, at a world consumed by materialism, self-worship and the worship of strange gods (movie stars, athletes, money, etc.) and can still find and reveal the divine in this world is worthy of redemption for himself, his progeny and those around him.

May we rediscover God every day.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the first blessing of the Silent Prayer, where we actually bless God, the God of our Patriarchs, the Shield of Abraham.

Know Thy Name

Kli Yakar Exodus: Va’era

Know Thy Name

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

– Chinese Proverb

Moses at burning bush

There is a long-standing belief in Judaism that parents are blessed with divine inspiration upon the naming of their child. God directs parents to use a particular name. Apparently, a child’s name is somehow predetermined to foreshadow some fate or character trait.

The most often used name in the Five Books of Moses, is none other than that of Moses himself. The Kli Yakar (Exodus 6:2) claims that Moses understood the inner meaning of his name yet chose to ignore it. He claims that ‘Moses’ comes from the Hebrew root ‘moshe’ or ‘moshech’ meaning to draw. And that it refers not to Pharaoh’s daughter drawing him from the Nile, but rather that Moses was destined to draw the Children of Israel out of Egypt.

Moses looked inward and noted that he was “heavy of mouth and tongue” (however one interprets that), and therefore inappropriate for leadership of the Jewish nation. Hence his initially declining the role. God reprimands Moses and tells him that he cannot ignore his name and his destiny and that he will overcome any and all impediments.

Moses ultimately accepts his task and destiny and became our redeemer, law-giver and eternal teacher.

May we learn the inner meanings of our names and live up to them.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Rachelle and Avi Chazen on the naming of their firstborn, Uriel Yehuda. May he incorporate all the good he was named for.

Drinks at The Hungry Crocodile

Exodus: Va’era

Drinks at The Hungry Crocodile

The hieroglyphics on the wall announced the day’s menu. The menu however, had not changed in over two months; and most of the menu was not available. An old toothless priestess played a melancholy tune on her harp in a dark corner of the hall. Rumor had it that her older brother was killed during the attack of the wild beasts, and she had not played a happy tune ever since.

The tables of the tavern were filled with groups of the higher echelons of Egyptian society talking quietly to themselves, or loners commiserating with their drinks.

One table was filled with muscle-bound black eunuchs from Pharaoh’s palace.

“I was there, I tell you,” big Leras, Royal Eunuch, whispered in his high-pitched voice to his audience around the circular table. “I was there when Moses announced the next plague.”

“So what did he say?” bulky Doigo asked in an equally high voice. “What will the next plague be?”

“Hailstones,” Leras intoned as he scratched the scabs from his receding boils. “Moses said that whoever or whatever will be out in the fields tomorrow, will die from the hailstones. If you are indoors, you will be spared.”

“And you believe that charlatan, Leras?” Fanir, the Priest of Ra, asked from the adjacent table, sitting with other priests. “Have you, and your fellow eunuchs lost faith in the gods of Egypt?”

“I did not realize you were eavesdropping, Fanir,” Leras accused. “Besides, your faith in your gods has blinded you to reality. The god of the Hebrews has proven himself to be more powerful, and there is nothing they or Pharaoh have been able to do to stop him.”

“Be careful, Leras,” Fanir warned. “You speak both blasphemy and treason. Not even your position of Royal Eunuch may save you from punishment.”

“You are a fool, Fanir,” Leras grinned and made a pushing and slicing motion with his hands towards Doigo and the rest of the eunuchs at his table. “Egypt is crumbling before our very eyes and I for one intend to be on the winning side. This Moses is masterful. His presence alone is impressive and the way he stands up to Pharaoh is most inspiring.”

“What? You wish to join with him in their worship in the desert?” Fanir asked.

“You are truly brainless,” Leras grinned even wider. “Do you for a moment believe his god is going through all this trouble merely for a day of worship? They mean to be free and to leave Egypt. Any fool can see that. But you, it seems, are not even a fool!”

Fanir glanced around the tavern, his face turning red from embarrassment. He looked meaningfully at his fellow priests. “I shall not allow such an insult to go unanswered,” Fanir declared to his tablemates. The five priests rose from their chairs as one, and faced the eunuch’s table.

At that moment, the door to the tavern opened and silence reigned throughout the hall. Even the old harpist stopped her playing. Two strangers walked in. Two Hebrews! Their skins were unblemished, with no scars or boils on them. They had the happy demeanor of men who had eaten well – something no Egyptian had experienced for months. They swaggered into the tavern carrying a fresh side of beef between them.

“Ho! Innkeeper!” the taller Hebrew, Datan, called out. “We heard you Egyptians have not had fresh meat for some time.”

“What is that to you, slave?” Parnet, innkeeper of The Hungry Crocodile responded, all eyes watching the exchange.

“Oh, we just thought, you might enjoy something other than the blood-soaked fish you seem to enjoy so much,” Datan teased.

“Yes,” the shorter Hebrew, Aviram, added, “we also heard how popular frogs became on your menu. Boiled frogs, baked frogs, grilled frogs, frog pie, and what was our favorite, Datan? Oh yes! Stuffed frog – with frog stuffing! If the plagues were not enough, your menu would kill you!” Datan and Aviram laughed unkindly.

“You Hebrews think you are funny,” Fanir, the priest called out from his table. “Laugh now, but do not forget that you are still slaves.”

“Slaves?” Datan asked mockingly. “You are behind the times, priest. We will soon be rid of Egyptian taskmasters, assuming there are any left after our God is through with you.”

“Enough talk, Hebrew,” Parnet interrupted. “How much do you want for the meat?”

“200 shekel,” Datan answered slowly.

“200 shekel!?” Parnet shouted. “Are you out of your mind? Why I used to pay no more than 20 shekel for an entire cow, let alone one side.”

“Of course you did,” Aviram responded loudly, “but that was before the wild animals ravaged the herds, and the pestilence decimated them. It is no problem. We are sure that The Wet Hippopotamus down the road would love to offer fresh meat to their more esteemed clientele.”

“Now, now, now, my dear Hebrews,” Parnet put out his hands in appeasement, “there is no need to drive such a hard bargain. Let us sit in the back room and reach an equitable price, without disturbing the customers.”

“Lead the way, good innkeeper,” Datan replied and winked at Aviram. They followed Parnet behind the counter and into the kitchen still carrying their fresh meat. The eyes of all the Egyptians followed the carcass hungrily.

“You see, Finar,” Leras snickered, pointing at the exiting Hebrews. “This is just the beginning. At the end Egypt may be begging from the Hebrews for more than just some fresh meat. You priests are such a wretched lot. I can not believe you still pray to your pathetic gods for help.”

“Your intransigence is outrageous,” Finar answered, pounding his fist on the table. “The Hebrews may have the upper hand right now, but your rebelliousness is inexcusable. I shall report you to Pharaoh personally and I will be happy to supervise your execution.”

Leras motioned to the other eunuchs. Doigo got up smoothly, turned around and suddenly pushed the priest closest to him. “Hey! Watch it you clumsy fool!” Doigo yelled at him.

The startled priest pushed Doigo back. “What are you doing? I did nothing.”

“Nothing!? You call this nothing!?” Doigo’s shout reverberated throughout the tavern. Doigo then smashed his beefy fist into the priest’s confused face. The impact made a satisfying ‘crunch’ sound as Doigo broke the priest’s nose. A second later a loud crash announced the priest flying into the table.

“Fight!” some customer yelled and the entire tavern was on its feet.

Leras picked up his table and threw it, plates, cups and all towards the priests. Then the fighting started in earnest. Chairs were broken on people’s heads; bodies went flying through the air. There was a high concentration of white priest robes mixed with muscular black bodies in the center of the melee.

Excited by the action and showing more life than she had since her brother’s death, the old priestess played a merry tune.

In the midst of the chaos Leras closed in on Finar. He grabbed Finar by the collar and in his other hand he discretely pulled out a knife. “Say your prayers quickly, priest. You can no longer threaten a man and expect to get away with it.”

“You dare not harm me, eunuch. I am a sanctified priest of the mighty god Ra. You will suffer eternal damnation in the underworld if you harm me.”

“I doubt it,” Leras whispered as he quietly thrust his blade between the priest’s ribs.

Finar crumpled to the floor joining other unconscious priests.

Parnet, followed closely by Datan and Aviram ran out of the kitchen into the main hall.

“What is going on here?” Parnet wailed.

“This is truly pleasant. To see the Egyptians fighting with each other,” Datan commented.

“Yeah, we should come here more often,” Aviram approved. “Perhaps we can even sell tickets for viewing?”

Leras gave a piercing whistle. As quickly as it started, the fighting stopped.

The priestess returned to playing a more subdued tune.

One of the conscious priests examined the wounded.

“He is dead! Fanir is dead! He has been stabbed!”

“I think perhaps he just tripped during the fighting,” Leras explained, showing the blood on his hand. “If anyone wants to make an issue of it,” Leras looked menacingly at the priests, “they may find themselves tripping as well.”

“N-No Leras,” the priest stuttered and took a step back. “This was just an unfortunate accident. Your theological arguments are very persuasive.”

“Ah. So there is some wisdom in the priesthood after all,” Leras nodded.

Datan and Aviram looked apprehensively at the dead priest and Leras standing over him.

“This Leras is dangerous,” Datan whispered. “We have our money. Let us leave this zoo.”

Datan and Aviram made their way to the door, stepping over debris from the fight.

Leras noticing the movement, called out to them. “Hebrews!”

Datan and Aviram turned around before the entrance.

“We – we do not want any trouble,” Datan stammered. “We did not see anything.”

“I have a message for your Moses.”

“And what would that be then,” Aviram breathed out, turning back to the entrance.

“Tell Moses that the palace eunuchs are with him. We support his struggle and will follow him,” Leras raised his bloody hand. “Whether he likes it or not.”

* * * * * *


Exodus, Chapter 9

18 Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now.

19 Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.’

20 He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses;

21 and he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field.

Exodus, Chapter 12

37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.

38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

Mixed multitude: an assembly of idol worshipers from different nations that converted. Rashi, Exodus 12:38

Caring Spectators

Exodus: Va’era

Caring Spectators

When the world was young and cable-less, people were not troubled overmuch by distressing news from far reaches. It was just an item of interest – almost like the weather. Even today though, with an overload of images of misery, violence, poverty and war, we have often become uncaring spectators. We watch more out of curiosity than any deep sense of helping the plight of the needy.

However, for many volunteers, there has been that intersection of seeing the plight of a downtrodden, suffering people that moves them to action. I recall an interview years ago with a photojournalist covering a famine in Africa. His goal in filming the starving miserable children was to generate awareness and action. He succeeded. Donations and volunteers poured in from all over the world.

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) claims that seeing the distress of another is a prerequisite for successful action. Knowing or hearing about the distress is apparently not as powerful.

After Pharaoh cries for mercy from the plague of the hailstones, Moses announces that he will go out of the city in order to stop the hail. Many commentators think it strange – why doesn’t Moses just stop the hail where he’s standing?

Hizkuni explains that the devastation of the hailstones was mostly on the crops, in the field, outside the city. Moses needed to see the damage and destruction firsthand in order to pray for relief. He wouldn’t be as effective praying from afar.

May we be willing (and able, when appropriate) to get up close and personal when we need to relieve the distress of others. Apparently, it’s the best way.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Haiti and all those affected by this week’s natural disaster. For some reason, God seems to be giving this country a particularly hard time over the years.

And to the staff and crew of El Al’s Sao Paulo flight. I was pleasantly surprised – even amazed, by the gracious service. May this spread to all their routes.

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

Something About Sforno  — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Va’era 5769

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

US Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager, is credited as being the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, in the Bell X-1. Many pilots before him died trying. It took test pilots and engineers many years to understand and overcome the many issues surrounding traveling faster than the speed of sound. Some scientists thought it was impossible and aircraft would break apart from the extreme pressure and vibrations as they approached the sound barrier.

In the early days of the cold war, the one critical element lacking in the development of nuclear missiles was known as “atmospheric reentry technology”. Scientists discovered that anything they sent into space or even the upper atmosphere would burn up on reentry. As such they needed to develop proper shielding technology to protect the “payload”.

Sonic booms and atmospheric reentry burnout were technological issues that were not even dreamed off until a few decades ago.

As such, it is outright incredible that Rabbi Ovadia Sforno describes both of these phenomena in his commentary about half a millennium ago.

In Exodus 9:23-24 the Bible recounts:

“And Moses outstretched his staff to the heavens, and God gave sounds and hail, and fire descended earthward, and God rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail and fire together in the hail, very heavy, the like of which was not in Egypt since it’s becoming a nation.”

Sforno comments on the “fire descended”:

“The flaming air descended to the earth with the force of the movement of the hail that pressed on it (the air) during its descent.”

Sforno basically and accurately described atmospheric reentry during the same period of time when Leonardo Da Vinci was playing with his water engine.

Sforno continues:

“In the force of the movement of the hail during its descent, the air was flamed and produced sound.”

He’s talking about sonic booms!

Imagine an ongoing downpour of burning hailstones accompanied by continuous sonic booms. It’s no wonder Pharaoh is frightened out of his wits and begs for the noise to stop before mentioning the hail.

The fact that Sforno was able to describe scientific concepts that we think of as exclusively from our modern era simply leaves me awestruck.

May plagues continue to hail down on our enemies, and may we be spared, and like our ancestors may we witness redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Dr. Irwin Rochwarger, a beloved mentor and teacher. As an engineer who designed and built satellites for NASA, amongst many other amazing technological feats, he would have appreciated very much Sforno’s insight.

Unfamiliar Terms?

The term sonic boom is commonly used to refer to the shocks caused by the supersonic flight of an aircraft. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion. Thunder is a type of natural sonic boom, created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a lightning discharge.[1]


When an object passes through the air, it creates a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the object increases, the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot “get out of the way” of each other, eventually merging into a single shock wave at the speed of sound. This critical speed is known as Mach 1 and is approximately 1,225 kilometers per hour (761 mph) at sea level.


The cracking sound a bullwhip makes when properly wielded is, in fact, a small sonic boom. The end of the whip, known as the “cracker”, moves faster than the speed of sound, thus resulting in the sonic boom.[3] The whip was the first human invention to break the sound barrier.[citation needed]

A bullwhip tapers down from the handle section to the cracker. The cracker has much less mass than the handle section. When the whip is sharply swung, the energy is transferred down the length of the tapering whip. In accordance with the formula for kinetic energy, the velocity of the whip increases with the decrease in mass, which is how the whip reaches the speed of sound and causes a sonic boom.