Vaera: The Fire Inside

Melting the Ego

What is the message of this plague?

Table for Five: Vaera

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The hail was very heavy – fire flashing in the midst of the hail – such as had not fallen in the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. 

Ex. 9:24

Rabbi David Block, Head of School, Shalhevet High School

The spectacle of fire inside ice was terrifying and wondrous – but it was just that, a spectacle. Was it necessary? It’s clear from the p’sukim that the fire-hail did not cause any more physical damage than solid-ice-hail would have. So why the fire inside the ice?

When I think of the Barad, I can’t help but imagine another time in which a fire was contained inside something, a fire that didn’t consume the object in which it burned, just as the fire of Barad didn’t consume its icy enclosure: the Burning Bush. But what might this hail have to do with the Burning Bush?

God’s Presence “always appears as fire” (R. S. R. Hirsch, Shemos 3:2). And, according to R. Hirsch, the fire inside the bush was to symbolize the transcendent message of the Midrash: “There is no place in this world devoid of God’s presence – even a bush.” Perhaps, then, the fire inside the hail symbolized God’s presence, too. Even more, perhaps it symbolized the attribute of God upon which this whole narrative is built (Shemos 6:3): the Creator God, the God of love. Yes, God’s power must sometimes be felt. Sometimes things must be torn down. But, even in those moments, even amidst the suffering, God is there with us. When God’s fire could have raged unbounded against Egypt, when the narrative could have ended right there with Egypt’s destruction – even then, God’s fire didn’t consume. The fire remained tame – as a spectacle – inside the ice. God is there, always, waiting for us to notice, ready for us to return. It’s precisely what Egypt needed to learn.

Bracha Goetz, Author of 41 Jewish Children’s Books

The Zohar, which contains mystical Jewish wisdom from the Kabbalah, explains that each of the ten plagues sent to the Egyptians came to teach important lessons. This seventh plague of heavy hail had fire flashing in the midst of it. This unusual hail was sent not only as retribution to the Egyptians. What message of hope did it contain for the Jewish slaves trapped there?

You may feel cold and icy after years of pain, but know that there is still a flame always flashing deep within. How will you be able to chip away at the ice and let it eventually melt away to reach the warmth that remains pure and vibrant inside?

Torah provides what is needed to melt the icy ego and feel the warmth of life pulsating with gratitude. Each mitzvah comes to chip away at egotistical coldness. Each mitzvah ignites us to care for others, recognize the source of abundant goodness, and rejoice in our blessings.

The Torah’s guidelines kindle kindness in our world. As the Jewish people emerged from slavery, they would soon be ready to receive the holy wisdom that would spark the flame of the “pintele yid.” This flicker of fire is still patiently present – and as vibrantly ablaze as ever – within every one of us today too, no matter what we’ve each individually and collectively experienced.

May we all stoke the flames of deep gratitude that let our souls shine!

Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Musician and Composer

Human beings are creatures of habit. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The House of the Dead, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” Some allow themselves to settle into such a monotonous routine that they walk through life like zombies. And yet, this characteristic means that even in the harshest conditions humans find ways to persevere and to survive.

At the same time, illumination flashes in the most surprising places. We never know when or where it might strike. This fiery hail is an oxymoron and an impossibility in and of itself – fire within rain. It was something so unheard of, so strange, that it served as a lightbulb of sorts for the Egyptians. They had forgotten who they were as a nation: founded as a land of beauty and hope and bounty along the Nile, welcome to strangers and suffering peoples in need during times of trouble and famine.

After seven (a number of completion!) plagues, a flash of illumination within the hail wakes them up and shakes them to their foundation. Before the next plague, the courtiers speak up for the first time, finally asking Pharoah to come to his senses and let the people go before Egypt is completely lost. This act is a flash of hope of a better tomorrow for the Israelites. This Shabbat, what will serve as a flashpoint for you? What needs changing in your routine or our collective psyche?

David Brandes, Writer/Producer www.thequarrelmovie.com

You might think that by the time the seventh plague finished terrorizing the Egyptian people with a violent celestial assault, Pharaoh would come to his senses and realize that the God of Moses was a superior force. Time to let the Hebrews go and save whatever face Pharaoh had left.

Yet the next morning, Pharaoh hardened his heart and reneged on his promise to Moses to let the Hebrews go. This raises the question: how could any human not capitulate to the God of such overwhelming might?

The answer is that Pharaoh was no ordinary human. In ancient Egypt Pharaohs were considered gods chosen to lead the people and maintain order. It was a kind of supreme narcissism supported by the law of the land. The people believed Pharaoh was god and Pharaoh reciprocally believed himself to be god. Psychologists refer to this condition as collusion delusion.

If Pharaoh had admitted defeat it would have been a far greater tragedy than just losing face. It would have undermined Pharaoh’s legitimacy and his deity. To sustain his sense of self, Pharaoh must have believed that he was locked in a personal struggle with another God like himself. It was a battle of the deities. So, when the sun rose the next morning, the battle was rejoined by Pharaoh without hesitation. His royal narcissism lead him to ultimate defeat, shame and death.

Is there a message in all of this for comrade Putin?

Rabbi Chanan Gordon, Prominent Inspirational Speaker

The meforshim in the Torah are at pains to point out that the ten plagues were not only for the sake of Pharaoh, but were intended as life lesson for the Jewish people for eternity – i.e. – to appreciate who G-d is, and His omnipotent power.

Each plague revealed some facet of Hashem’s Mastery. The plague of hail, which included, “fire flaming amid the hail” (Exodus: 9:24) showed that whereas the pagan pantheon had a different god for each natural force, the one G-d of the Jewish People controlled all, even competing forces.

As the hail destroyed the trees of Egypt, Pharaoh begged Moses to pray that there be no more hail, and promised to let the Israelites go (Exodus 9:27-28). The midrash says that when Moses prayed for the hail to cease, the hailstones that were on the way down were suspended in midair. The fact that fire could coexist with water in the hailstones, as well as the fact that the hailstones stopped falling in midair should be a reminder to all of us that nature, like everything else, is controlled by Hashem.

The Talmud teaches us that “each person must see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt.” Our lives are filled with messages from Hashem, designed to teach us His ways and draw us near. He has a plan, and we have the choice: To fit in, or to be cut out. The choice is clear if we only open our eyes.

With thanks to Rabbi David Block, Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, David Brandes, and Rabbi Chanan Gordon

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