A Week of Corrections

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaEra

Hey at the Beginning of a Word

Par’oh’s reaction to the plague of hail gives HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, by R. Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg, opportunities to adjust a reading of a word in consecutive verses. In 9;27, Par’oh summons Moshe and Aharon and concedes, chatati ha-pa’am, usually taken to mean ha-pa’am, this time, I have sinned. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah seems first bothered by the omission of any word of concession. Were Par’oh finally admitting he had sinned this time, he should have said it more straightforwardly.

He identifies the letter hey of ha-pa’amthis time, as a weak link. Kohelet 2;14 writes he-chacham einav be-rosho, the wise person has eyes in his head (anticipates the future and acts to avoid negatives, accentuate its positives), we see a hey at the beginning of a word can mean all members of a category. Similarly, VaYikra 6;19 refers to a kohen who sprinkles the blood of a chatat, and calls him ha-kohen ha-mechatei, where the hey means whichever kohen (I think he means, similar to all kohanim).

For our case, ha-pa’am could then indicate all the times you previously warned me, I sinned in rejecting the warnings.  (He seems to think this reading has Par’oh being more explicit than had he wanted to say that only now had he sinner).

Va-Rav refers to God

The next verse, Par’oh asks them to pray to God, va-rav, from there being more hail (and accompanying noises). Many linked va-rav to the second phrase, enough or too much, of this hail. R. Mecklenburg objects that the word mi-hyot, from their being, already includes this sentiment, making va-rav superfluous.

He instead links it to the previous phrase, call out to God, va-Rav, Who is great and powerful. He finds support in the ta’amei ha-mikra, the cantillation notes: va-Rav has a zakef gadol right after the zakef katan on the word Hashem. (Zakef gadol is a standalone note, where zakef katan ends a phrase. This configuration comes again in 11;1; there, many commentators agree the word with the zakef gadol, kallah, modifies how Par’oh will expel them.)

hey and va-Rav, re-read by R. Mecklenburg, the former to mean all of something, the latter to refer to Hashem rather than something being enough or too much.

No One Needed More Frogs

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch cannot accept the simple meaning ofShemot8;3, the sorcerers brought more frogs. I would have thought he was questioning the value in bringing more frogs, but he said Aharon’s already done it, in what sense could they bring more?

He doesn’t actually mean that, because he’ll eventually say more frogs came out of their staffs as well. I think he means why would bringing more do anything, what could it show?

He also rejects the possibility they rushed to make their hand motions before Aharon did, so that people would think only they produced the frogs, because if so, they should have been able to do that with kinim, lice, as well (where they concede the plagues are the Finger of God).

Failed Attempts to Avert a Plague

He claims instead the sorcerers were trying to stop the plague. Va-ya’asu chen, so did, the sorcerers, tells R. Hirsch they used the same hand and staff motions as Aharon, to reverse the spell, nullify what Aharon had done.

In his view, Aharon stretched his hand over Egypt, then they did, to counteract his efforts, with the opposite effect, more frogs coming rather than fewer. His reading explains why Par’oh asks Moshe and Aharon to pray to Hashem to remove the frogs. Had his sorcerers just successfully replicated what Aharon had done, per the usual reading, wouldn’t that encourage him to think this was magic rather than God? But if they had failed, we understand.

What Kinim Showed

The last piece of his view comes in verse fourteen, which seems to say this time they tried to produce lice. R. Hirsch sticks with what he has said before, le-hotzi means to remove rather than produce (in fairness to him, yetzi’ah does mean for something to go out; the usual reading thinks it is to go out of the ground, water, or wherever).

Lice led them to concede it was the Finger of God, as it were, because it was their third failure, in his reading. We usually think they conceded God was acting the first time they were stymied. For R. Hirsch, it took three times, and they’ve been failing all along.

A Plague of Power and of Punishment

Malbim contrasts what Hashem tells Moshe to say to Par’oh about the plague of blood, 7;17, with the command to Aharon when actually bringing it, verse nineteen. For Par’oh, Moshe only speaks of the water in the Nile, where Aharon is told to wave his hands and staff in the direction of all the waters of Egypt, including in rocks and stones, completely disconnected from the Nile.

For Malbim, the first three plagues were about God’s mastery of the world [many commentators explain the foci of the three groups of plagues, largely because of R. Yehudah’s mnemonic splitting them into groups, as we say at the Seder; for Malbim, the first set was about establishing God’s rule of the world.] To make that point, it would have sufficed had only the Nile—a god of Egypt’s– turned to blood. Hence the nature of the warning to Par’oh.

However, it also came to punish all Egyptians with lack of water (Malbim does not say for what), the reason Aharon was to point to all the waters of Egypt when he put the plague into effect.

Reversing the Process of Enslavement

Hashem promises ve-hotzeiti, ve-hitzaltive-ga’alti, Hashem will take out, save, and redeem, 6;6. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann accepts R. Hirsch’s idea, these reverse what Hashem had told Avraham at the Berit Bein HaBetarim, his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own, where they would be enslaved, and tortured.

Hashem promises to take them out of the sivlot Mitzrayim, the sufferings the Egyptians had imposed, removing the ve-inu otam, they will make them suffer; save them from slavery, and redeem them, taking them away from their status of strangers.

R. Hoffmann then adds two pieces of his own, I think. First, that the descent to slavery happened in the order Hashem told Avraham, they were resident aliens in the land, insecure of their status but not enslaved. Then the Egyptians enslaved them, and only after that increased the sufferings to the point ofve-inu otam.

The freedom came in reverse order, ve-hotzeiti removing the excess sufferings of slavery. Because, says R. Hoffmann, you want take away the worst first, then move on to the next steps.

A week of corrections’ HaKetav VeHaKabbalah and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch correcting what they thought erroneous common readings of the text, Malbim seeing Hashem correct Par’oh’s misimpressions of the world at the same time as He punished the Egyptians, and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann thinking (with R. Hirsch) that the redemption from Egypt corrected the travails into which Hashem had decided for them at the Berit Bein Ha-Betarim.

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