Tag Archives: Va’era

Dever: Understanding the Plague

‘The Fifth Plague of Egypt’ by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven of the Ten Plagues that God struck ancient Egypt with. The one that is particularly of interest today is dever, pestilence. While in Egypt, it primarily affected the livestock, the word dever can refer to any kind of pestilence. One of the big questions here is why the plague is called dever (דבר), a term we typically associate more with “speech” and “words”, davar. Perhaps one way to understand it is that a plague that is especially virulent, like the one in ancient Egypt—and the one we are in the midst of currently—can be spread even through speech. The plague (dever, דבר) is invisible and airborne, like a word (davar, דבר) itself.

Another way to understand it is to remember that the Tanakh often tells us that the world exists only through God’s Word. King David wrote poetically that “By the Word [davar] of God the Heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all of their hosts.” (Psalms 33:6) Even more relevant for us now, Moses told us that God “subjects you to hardship” and sends us difficult challenges “in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on all that comes out of the Mouth of God does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In times of plague, this is a vital message—and while it might be a most difficult one to accept, it is undeniably true nonetheless—that ultimately, who lives and who dies is decreed by the Word of God.

Each person must do their hishtadlut, their effort in proactively preserving health. That means staying active, eating right, reducing stress, and maintaining positive relationships. It means reducing exposure to toxins and mutagens as much as possible, switching to more natural products, installing a good water filter (especially for drinking water), and spending time out in the great outdoors with plenty of fresh air. It also means, in times of plague, to be vigilant of surroundings, wear personal protective equipment when appropriate, maintain the highest standards of hygiene, and do the research in determining which medications are effective and safe. The rest remains in God’s Hands, and there is no need to panic. As the Prophet promised us, “Blessed is the man who trusts securely in God, and God will be his security.” (Jeremiah 17:7)

When it comes to our current pandemic, every person has had a different experience. Some have lost loved ones, others have not. Certain communities have been hit particularly hard while others went entirely unscathed. There are many views regarding how to deal with the plague and the proper way to get out of it. There have also been absurd conspiracy theories pushed on the one hand, balancing out the illogical and unreasonable measures enacted on the other. In fact, perhaps the key problem has been the constant torrent of misinformation, both mainstream and alternative. People don’t know what to think anymore! So, let’s try to honestly sift through the confusion and come to at least a few undeniable facts that everyone can agree on at this point.

A year ago, we were told that the new vaccines are up to 95% effective, and if all we did was take a couple of shots the virus would go away and the pandemic would be over. Here we are now, on the cusp of a third or even fourth shot, and nothing’s changed at all. The restrictions are still in full force, with new lockdowns on the horizon. Despite the high vaccination rates of most western countries, the pandemic has not receded whatsoever. Now, the majority of COVID cases are among the vaccinated. Here in Ontario today, 10436 new cases were reported, of which a whopping 8221 were fully vaccinated! The majority of people hospitalized are also fully vaccinated. In Israel, meanwhile, the first death from the Omicron variant was reported today—and it was a triple-vaccinated woman. Yet, unbelievably, the powers-that-be are still pushing us to vaccinate with even more boosters! As Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The data really speaks for itself: vaccines have done little to stop the pandemic besides for reducing symptoms. We were initially told the vaccines would stop transmission, but that message has changed. The vaccinated are undoubtedly transmitting, too. On that note, the push to vaccinate children was primarily made on the argument of not having them transmit it to the elderly, who are most susceptible. But everyone now agrees that the vaccine does not stop transmission! So, what is the point of vaccinating children? Kids are not very susceptible to COVID, and no one disputes that the vast majority of children, with rare exceptions, take it mildly or are entirely asymptomatic.

Worse yet, evidence is building that the spike protein which the mRNA vaccines code for is itself carcinogenic (here is a peer-reviewed study in a scientific journal, and here is another). Why give little children multiple doses of a potentially harmful carcinogen when the virus itself is mostly harmless to them? What might be the horrific long-term consequences of repetitive mass-vaccination? It may very well end up being an enormous crime against humanity.

Finally, regardless of how you feel about the virus and the vaccine, or which side you are on, the new “mandates” being introduced by governments worldwide should concern everyone. People have lost their jobs and livelihoods for simply exercising the right to their own bodies. No one should be coerced into a medical procedure they do not want—especially when the data behind it is so poor, as we’ve seen. Meanwhile, fundamental rights are being stripped for all people, regardless of vaccination status. Freedom of movement? Highly restricted. Freedom of speech? Be careful what you say lest you lose your license! Freedom of religion and belief? Every single person I know who’s applied for some kind of religious exemption or conscientious objection has been denied outright.

You might think it’s okay because desperate times call for desperate measures. However, once these “rules” are in place, it will be almost impossible to repeal them, and they will remain long after the pandemic. Want to go to a restaurant? Let’s see your private medical records! Want to go on vacation? You will first have to take this invasive medical test before and after (and in between)! Want this job? Not if you don’t take multiple doses of a new “treatment” required for all employees! We are setting dangerous precedents and descending ever further down a treacherous slippery slope. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum is openly pushing a “digital ID” for everyone that will store a person’s private information and biometrics, linked to their vaccinations, and bank accounts, too. (See here on their own website.) Is this the future we want?

Let’s not forget what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. How did Pharaoh manage to convince an entire populace to turn on its Jews? The answer is simple, and relayed clearly in the Torah. Pharaoh saw an opportunity, and said: “let us outsmart them!” (Exodus 1:10) He engineered a crisis, and used fear-mongering and propaganda to convince everyone that Israel was the dreaded enemy. Did it happen overnight? Not at all. In fact, our Sages say that the Israelites gave up their rights willingly, one small “harmless” step at a time. This is the meaning of the famous statement that Israel was enslaved b’farekh (בְּפָרֶךְ, Exodus 1:13), meaning b’pe rakh (בְּפֶה רַךְ), with a “soft mouth”, gradually, through a set of small “gentile” mandates (Sotah 11b). It was for the good of society after all! It took thirty years until they were fully enslaved. By then, it was too late to go back.

We are now seeing the same playbook of fear-mongering followed by incremental restrictions. Now is the time for everyone—across the social and political spectrum, vaccinated or not—to stand up and fight to preserve freedom. The more people that speak out, resist (peacefully), and refuse to comply, the better it will get. The government needs to be sent a clear message, for the government is only as powerful as the governed allow them to be. If people do not speak out, or continue to stay silent for fear of ostracism, things will only get worse. And then, again, it will be too late.

We began by exploring the connection between dever and davar, the plague and the Word of God. Here may lie the real core of the matter. The test right now is one of faith in God. As our Sages taught, “All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.” (Berakhot 33b) The question is who is aligning with God’s Will, and who is not. (It is worth mentioning that the mystical term for the Will of God is Keter which, when translated into Latin, is literally “corona”.) It could very well be that the challenges we are facing now are meant to strain out those who have faith in God, think for themselves, and put Torah law first, from those who have faith in men, let the media think for them, and follow the corrupt laws and mandates of wicked people. Long ago, the prophet Zechariah (13:8-9) foresaw that a day would come when

Throughout the land—declares God—two-thirds shall perish, shall die, and one-third of it shall survive. That third I will put into the fire, and I will smelt them as one smelts silver, and test them as one tests gold. They will invoke Me by Name, and I will respond to them. I will declare: “You are My people.” And they will declare: “Hashem is our God!”

We have a general rule in Judaism that a negative prophecy does not have to be fulfilled, since it is given as a warning. Unfortunately, the warning usually falls on deaf ears, and the prophecy is realized anyway. If Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled, only a third will survive the coming calamity, and it is the third that trusts in God. Still, it will not be easy for that third, as they will be put through tremendous tests. We should learn from this that no matter what happens in the coming days, and how excruciating it might get, we must only strengthen our resolve and continue to declare loudly: “Hashem is our God!”

The Egyptian Who Prophesied the Exodus

This week’s parasha, Va’era, gets into the heart of the Exodus narrative, starting with the first of the Ten Plagues. These events are so monumental that it is specifically for this part of the Torah, far more than any other, that people always seek some archaeological or historical proof. An impressive amount of such evidence has indeed been found. One particularly important piece of evidence, the Ipuwer Papyrus, incredibly mentions the Nile River turning to blood and Egypt being decimated by pestilence, famine, and even fire from the Heavens. Yet, this text is generally rejected by secular scholars as having anything to do with the Exodus! A proper understanding of the Torah’s events and timeline might reveal that the Ipuwer Papyrus may very well be among the greatest pieces of evidence that we have.

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The Kabbalah of Moses’ Divine Staff

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven plagues to strike Egypt. These were brought about through the Staff of Moses, as were the later Splitting of the Sea, the victory over Amalek (Exodus 17) and the water brought forth from a rock. What was so special about this particular staff, and what was the source of its power?

Pirkei Avot (5:6) famously states that the Staff was one of ten special things to be created in the twilight between the Sixth Day and the first Shabbat. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40) elaborates:

Rabbi Levi said: That staff which was created in the twilight was delivered to the first man out of the Garden of Eden. Adam delivered it to Enoch, and Enoch delivered it to Noah, and Noah to Shem. Shem passed it on to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob brought it down to Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph, and when Joseph died and they pillaged his household goods, it was placed in the palace of Pharaoh.

And Jethro was one of the magicians of Egypt, and he saw the staff and the letters which were upon it, and he desired it in his heart, and he took it and brought it, and planted it in the midst of the garden of his house. No one was able to approach it any more.

When Moses came to his house, he went into Jethro’s garden, and saw the staff and read the letters which were upon it, and he put forth his hand and took it. Jethro watched Moses, and said: “This one in the future will redeem Israel from Egypt.” Therefore, he gave him Tzipporah his daughter to be his wife…

God gave the staff to Adam, who gave it to Enoch (Hanokh)—who later transformed into the angel Metatron—and Enoch passed it on further until it got to Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh confiscated it after Joseph’s death. The passage then alludes to another Midrashic teaching that Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ future father-in-law, was once an advisor to Pharaoh, along with Job and Bila’am (see Sanhedrin 106a). The wicked Bila’am was the one who advised Pharaoh to drown the Israelite male-born in the Nile. While Job remained silent (for which he was so severely punished later), Jethro protested the cruel decree, and was forced to resign and flee because of it. As he fled, he grabbed the divine staff with him. Arriving in Midian, his new home, Jethro stuck the staff in the earth, at which point it seemingly gave forth deep roots and was immovable.

A related Midrash states that all the suitors that sought the hand of his wise and beautiful Tzipporah were asked to take the staff out of the earth, and should they succeed, could marry Jethro’s daughter. None were worthy. (Not surprisingly, some believe that this Midrash may have been the source for the Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur.) Ultimately, Moses arrived and effortlessly pulled the staff out of the ground.

The passage above states that Moses was mesmerized by the letters engraved upon the staff, as was Jethro before him. What were these letters?

The 72 Names

Targum Yonatan (on Exodus 4:20) explains:

And Moses took the rod which he had brought away from the chamber of his father-in-law, made from the sapphire Throne of Glory; its weight forty se’ah; and upon it was engraved and set forth the Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought before Hashem by his hand…

God’s Ineffable Name was engraved upon the sapphire staff, which was itself carved out of God’s Heavenly Throne. The staff weighed a whopping 40 se’ah, equivalent to the minimum volume of a kosher mikveh, which is roughly 575 litres (or 575 kilograms) of water. (This might explain why none could dislodge the staff, except he who had God’s favour.)

A parallel Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 8:3) also confirms that the staff was of pure sapphire, weighing forty se’ah, but says it was engraved with the letters that stand for the Ten Plagues, as we recite at the Passover seder: datzach, adash, b’achav (דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב).

A final possibility is that the “Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought” refers to the mystical 216-letter Name of God (or 72-word Name of God). This Name is actually 72 linked names, each composed of three letters. The names are derived from the three verses Exodus 14:19-21:

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet it gave light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and Hashem caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.

The 72 Three-Letter Names of God

Each of these verses has exactly 72 letters. Hidden within them is this esoteric Name of God, the most powerful, through which came about the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as the verses themselves describe. The Name (or 72 Names) is derived by combining the first letter of the first verse, then the last letter of the second verse, and then the first letter of the third verse. The same is done for the next letter, and so on, for all 72 Names.

Since the Splitting of the Sea and the plagues were brought about through these Names, the Midrash above may be referring not to the Ineffable Name, but to these 72 Names as being engraved upon the Staff. In fact, it may be both.

Staff from Atzilut

The 72 Names are alluded to by another mystical 72-Name of God. The Arizal taught that God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in four ways. This refers to a practice called milui,* where the letters of each word are themselves spelled out to express the inner value and meaning of the word. God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in these ways, with the corresponding values:

יוד הא ואו הא = 45

יוד הה וו הה = 52

יוד הי ואו הי = 63

יוד הי ויו הי = 72

The Name with the 72 value is the highest, not just numerically, but according to the sefirot, partzufim, and universes laid out in Kabbalah. The 52-Name corresponds to Malkhut and the world of Asiyah; the 45-Name to Zeir Anpin (the six “masculine” sefirot) and the world of Yetzirah; and the 63-Name to Binah and the world of Beriah. The 72-Name—which is, of course, tied to the above 72 Names of God—corresponds to the highest universe, Atzilut, the level of God’s Throne, where there is nothing but His Emanation and Pure Light. Here we come full circle, for the Midrash states that the Staff of Moses was itself carved out of God’s Throne. This otherworldly staff came down to this world from the highest Heavenly realm!

Where is the Staff Today?

What happened to Moses’ staff after his passing? Another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 869) answers:

…the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is likewise the holy staff with which Moses worked, and with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh, and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath. David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a sceptre until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a sceptre as a sign of his authority over the heathens.

This incredible passage contains a great deal of novel insight. Firstly, Jacob used this divine staff to split the Jordan and allow his large family to safely cross back to Israel, just as the Israelites would later cross the Jordan in miraculous fashion under the leadership of Joshua. It seems Joshua himself, as Moses’ rightful successor, held on to the staff, and passed it down through the Judges and Prophets until it came to the hand of David. Unlike the traditional account of David slaying Goliath with the giant’s own sword (after the slingshot), the Midrash here says he slew Goliath with the staff!

The staff remained in the Davidic dynasty until the kingdom’s end with the destruction of the First Temple. At this point a lot of things mysteriously disappeared, most famously the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the Ark was hidden in a special chamber built for it by Solomon, who envisioned the day that the Temple would be destroyed. It is likely that the staff is there, too, alongside the Ark.

Mashiach will restore both of these, and will once again wield the sceptre of the Davidic dynasty. As the staff is forged from God’s own Heavenly Throne, it is fitting that Mashiach—God’s appointed representative, who sits on His corresponding earthly throne—should hold a piece of it. And this symbol, the Midrash concludes, will be what makes even the heathens accept Mashiach’s—and God’s—authority. Jacob prophesied this on his deathbed (Genesis 49:10), in his blessing to Judah:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the coming of Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of all the peoples be.

Shiloh is one of the titles for Mashiach (see Sanhedrin 98b), and his wielding of the staff will bring about the obedience of all the world’s people to God’s law. We can now also solve a classic problem with the above verse:

The verse states that the sceptre will not depart from Judah until the coming of Mashiach, as if it will depart from Judah when Mashiach comes. This makes no sense, since Mashiach is a descendent of Judah! It should have simply said that the sceptre shall never depart from Judah, from whom the messiah will come. Rather, Jacob is hinting that the Staff will one day be hidden in the land of Judah, deep below “between his feet”, and won’t budge from there for millennia until Mashiach comes and finally restores it.

May we merit to see it soon.

*Interestingly, using the same milui method, one can expand the word staff (מטה) like this: מאם טאת הה, which is 501, equivalent to דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב, the acronym for the Ten Plagues which the Staff brought about!

The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here