Let my people go
a.k.a. Parashat Va'eira
God spoke to Moses and said, “I am the Lord who appeared to
Abrahahttp://www.thegoodshabboscommunity.com/m, Isaac and Jacob. I made a covenant with them by which I gave
them the land of Canaan. I have heard the people’s groans and will keep my part of the bargain. Tell the
children of Israel that I will deliver them from bondage and bring them to the Promised Land.” Moses delivered
this message, but the people – weighed down by slavery and low spirits – did not believe
Then God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to release the children of Israel. A reluctant Moses
replied that if the people of Israel didn’t pay him any attention, then Pharaoh certainly wouldn’t. But God told
Moses, and his brother Aaron, to deliver the message. He also informed them that He would make Pharaoh stubborn
and resistant, and would, as a consequence, bring His judgment to bear on Egypt.
God also told Moses and Aaron that when Pharaoh asked them to show him a miracle, as a
demonstration of the power of their god, Aaron should cast down a rod that would turn into a snake. Aaron did
so, but Pharaoh quickly got his magicians to match the trick. Aaron’s snake then devoured the magicians’ snakes,
but Pharaoh was unimpressed and denied the brothers’ demand.
By way of reply, God told Moses to meet Pharaoh by the bank of the Nile, and deliver judgment
for his stubbornness by taking the rod and turning the river to blood. God commanded Aaron to do the same thing at every water source in Egypt. Moses
and Aaron followed these commands, and the Nile and other rivers became polluted and all the fish died. However,
Pharaoh’s magicians managed the same effect, and still Pharaoh did not free the
God sent Moses to warn Pharaoh again, with similar unsuccessful results – and so God sent a
plague of frogs. Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to stop the plague, and promised he would let the people go. Moses
prayed to God and the plague was stopped. When Pharaoh saw the plague was over, he reneged on his promise to let
the Israelites go.
The frogs were followed by a plague of lice, which the court magicians couldn’t match. A
plague of flies came next. Then Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh to allow them to have three days in the wilderness
to make religious sacrifices. Pharaoh agreed on condition they pray to God to remove the plague of flies. The
plague ended, and Pharaoh returned to his stubborn ways, refusing to free the people.
Then God told Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh again and warn of a plague on the Egyptian
cattle and other livestock. This plague came to pass yet none of the cattle of the Israelites were harmed. Still
Pharaoh wouldn’t release the people. Then Moses threw ashes into the air that became fine dust, and this caused
boils to break out on the bodies of the Egyptians, including the court magicians. Still Pharaoh wouldn’t
Then God, through Moses, told Pharaoh that he could have killed him and his people at any
time, but had let them live so they could see God’s power in action. He would now send a plague of hail and
advised everyone to take shelter. Those who did not believe the warning left their slaves and cattle in the
fields. The hail came, amidst flashes of fire, and everything in the fields was destroyed. Goshen, where the
Israelites lived, was untouched.
This moved Pharaoh. He called Moses and Aaron, admitted he had sinned, promised to
free the children of Israel and asked Moses to beg the Lord to stop the hail. Once Moses had halted the hail,
Pharaoh hardened his heart again and would not let the children of Israel go.
Commentary on the 14th parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
MS: This is a very sacred part of
the Torah and it forms part of the great story we celebrate at Pesach. I hope, therefore, that you will treat it
SAS: I respect the portion as
literature and as part of our tradition, but there is no way on earth I am prepared to believe any of
MS: You don’t believe God sent
plagues to rescue the people of Israel?
SAS: No, I don’t. As someone who
believes in science, I see no reason whatsoever to think that events I wouldn’t possibly believe could happen
today could have happened in the distant past. Further, no documents have survived, apart from the bible, to
corroborate the existence of Moses, let alone the events presented here. Historians can’t even agree in which
centuries these events are supposed to have happened. Are we talking about the Hyksos era, the time when the
Habiru invaded Canaan, or the time of Rameses II? No one knows, although theories are plentiful
MS: While you cast about, looking
for proof that does not exist outside the bible, you are missing all the blessings you would receive if you
simply believed in the stories we have brought you. They are part of a proud and great tradition and our
ancestors would never have fabricated them.
SAS: You are very gullible,
Methuselah Solomon. You have concluded that this story is true because of its long history and its importance to
the community. That’s not rational. Evidence determines truth, not the literary and religious power of a story
or its cultural longevity.
MS: If the story weren’t true it
wouldn’t have lasted this long or be this powerful. In our hearts we know that these things took place.
SAS: Your heart, then, beats very
differently to mine. I’ll tell you one reason why I dislike this episode of miracles – it’s not particularly
Jewish. Read the Christian bible and you’ll stumble over a miracle every few pages. We find it hard to swallow
stories of the alleged miracles of Jesus and his companions, and rightly so. They stretch credulity to extreme
levels. But when we come across even bigger miracles in our own bible, some of us actually believe them! Here we
have Moses and Aaron traipsing about like necromancers or shamans, doing conjuring tricks! It’s so New
MS: Who is Jesus, and what’s the
SAS: Sorry, bad examples. Let me
rather say that a religious leader doing snake tricks belongs in a circus, not a bible. And anyone who thinks
God actually marshalled nature in such a way that Goshen and its inhabitants were untouched by hail, livestock
deaths and boils when everything surrounding them was, is someone who does not respect the scientific universe
or understand the way that it works.
MS: God made every part of nature,
and he can make it do whatever he likes. Of course he could confine a plague to a certain area of land!
SAS: This is all mythological
material, my friend, and it can’t be taken seriously as fact. Yes, interpret it symbolically if you will, and
say that amidst a number of natural disasters at the time, the people of Israel believed God’s hand was at work.
I wouldn’t agree, but I would at least recognise that you were trying to be
MS: Well, I could respect that
viewpoint too. As long as God was seen as the architect of events, I wouldn’t mind some latitude in the
interpretation of the story.
SAS: How very modern of you! I’m
afraid I don’t see any need to ascribe any actions to God, even if certain Jews did perhaps manage to escape the
burden of slavery in Egypt at some unidentified time. It’s very easy to get into the habit of ascribing
everything to God, and we love to do that, whether the things are good or bad. But it’s a superstitious habit,
MS: You are reducing an amazing
story of salvation to nothing.
SAS: It certainly is amazing, and
largely for the wrong reasons. Take the idea that God purposefully hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that these
terrible calamities could play themselves out. What kind of God is this? Why not soften Pharaoh’s heart so that
he simply let the people of Israel go? That would have been a perfect miracle – one in which nobody would have
been hurt or killed.
MS: But then God’s power would
never have been demonstrated!
SAS: Good. Whenever he demonstrates
it, people die left right and centre – innocent children too, as we shall soon
MS: You are looking at things from
the perspective of man, not God! Whatever God does is right. Who can challenge the acts of
SAS: We all can. Not that there’s a
God to challenge – just a concept invented by people like you. It’s a concept that has held people’s minds
captive for centuries.
MS: This is a story of freedom. We
who believe in God experience the true freedom of knowing that he has chosen us and will be with us throughout
SAS: I disagree, and don’t dangle
that word history in front of me. The portion we read tonight is nothing of the
MS: How impoverished your
imagination is, Sigmund! How very, very poor!
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
Anti-Semitism in Europe
(12th century – 18th century)
The Blood Libel
Instances of anti-Semitism in Europe were numerous in the period under review. A
particularly alarming form of anti-Semitism was the so-called blood libel. It involved the claim that Jews
used the blood of Christian children in religious rituals. The belief spread, in spite of there being no
evidence for it, that Jews kidnapped Christian children and tortured and executed them during a ritual
offering of their blood – Passover allegedly being the favourite time for the sacrifice. It is easy to see
how anti-Semitism could be effectively promoted through such an unsubstantiated falsehood.
The Old Testament is opposed to
human sacrifice as a pagan evil, murder is forbidden and human blood is considered ritually impure. The point is
made in Genesis when Abraham is stopped from sacrificing his son Isaac, and the Jews make a covenant with God.
Apart from being prohibited in scripture, the kind of ritual murder ascribed to Jews in the Middle Ages was
totally unknown in any Jewish community.
The first instance of a blood libel claim was made
in Norwich, England, in March 1144 when a Christian boy, William of Norwich, was found stabbed to death in
Thorpe Wood. Anti-Semites spread the lie that Jews had tortured and crucified the boy as a sacrifice. A local
priest accused the Jews of the killing and called for a trial by ordeal – wanting the Jews to endure a
punishment to prove their innocence. The local sheriff opposed this sort of “justice”. No Jew was ever linked
to the crime, but William was regarded as a martyr and anti-Jewish hatred festered for years, culminating in
violence in 1190 when most of the Jews in Norwich were murdered in their homes. In the same year, more than
500 Jews died in York in a shocking massacre – more about this next week.
Another blood libel accusation arose in 1255 in Lincoln, England, when an
eight-year-old named Hugh was found in a well. Under threat of torture, a Jewish man, Copin, confessed to the
killing and was executed. Henry III also had 91 other Jews from Lincoln arrested and taken to London in
relation to the alleged ritual crime. Eighteen of these were hanged, enabling Henry to seize their property.
Copin’s “confession” under duress proved nothing and historians find no basis for claims of a ritual murder.
The cult of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln took off, nevertheless, and sites associated with his life became
popular places for pilgrims to visit.
The blood libel myth gained currency throughout
Europe, with Jews in a number of countries being accused of lusting after the innocent blood of Christian
children. There were several explanations for the blood libel myth. One was that Jews needed to replace the
blood they lost during circumcision with the blood of Christian children. Another was that their punishment
for killing Jesus was hemorrhoids, and they needed to drink children’s blood to help fight off
Given this level of ignorance, prejudice and hatred, it is hardly surprising that blood-libel
claims were numerous. For example, in Baden, in 1267, Jews were accused of killing a butchered seven-year-old
found in a river. A similar claim was made in 1270 in Alsace. In Oberwesel, Germany, in 1286, the Jews were blamed for the death of an 11-year-old boy who was found
in the Rhine – miraculously floating against the current, according to legend! The body was said to have
healing powers, and Jewish guilt was assumed given the miraculous properties of the “martyr’s” corpse. Three
years of persecution followed for the Jews in the region in spite of an imperial decree proclaiming Jewish innocence in the
In 1475, a shocking instance of anti-Semitism relating to a blood libel occurred in Trento,
Italy. Local Jews were accused of murdering a boy called Simon Unverdorben
at Passover time. Fifteen Jewish leaders were wrongly hanged for the alleged murder and the cult
of “Little Saint Simon” spread through Italy, Austria and Germany. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V confirmed Simon as a
saint. It wasn’t until 1965 that Pope Paul VI ended this cult.
Accusations of ritual murder against Jews arose in 1698 and 1712 in Sandomierz,
Poland. These resulted in riots and Jewish homes were looted. A Jew was tortured and killed in the first
case, and approximately 10 killed in the latter.
There are several other examples in the annals of European history, none of them
demonstrating Jewish guilt but all of them displaying the deep-seated anti-Semitism of the
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
What is this obsession that gentiles have with Jews and blood murders? It seems to be a
continuing theme throughout centuries of our history.
Wasn’t there also a rumour that the Jews made Passover matzos with the blood of Christian
It is indeed a strange motif that runs through parts of our history. I suppose we Jews
have always seen ourselves as different, and kept our cultural practices apart from those of the people
around us. The accusation of blood murder is a manifestation of a very primitive fear of otherness, the Jew
as bogeyman, murderer, Satan. Drinking the blood of Christian children, sapping the strength of the Christian
society. The Jews grow strong sucking the blood of the society that sustains them.
So we were seen as parasites, leeches on the populace?
Something like that. And notice, the Jews are seen as the strong, surreptitious
bloodsuckers, preying on innocent children. And it’s not hard to hate people who are accused of killing
children and to fear a religion which requires such cultural practices.
But it’s not true, is it?
DAD:Well, there’s nothing in Judaism that requires human sacrifice. In fact, the story of
Abraham and Isaac and the covenant with God expressly forbids human sacrifice.
BEN: Yet Christianity has people symbolically drinking the blood of Christ.
Well, that’s a different system of symbols and myths and nothing to do with our cultural
practices. The more important point is that people create monsters through fear of otherness. If Jews could
be seen as different and non-human, then it would not be seen as cruel to kill them and drive them away.
People always need to feel they can protect themselves against threats to their survival, and the Jews,
because of their difference, and their successfulness, were obvious targets.
What upsets me is the way Jewish guilt was assumed without rational investigation or
trial. How could people assume Jewish guilt on the basis of a bogus story about a miraculous
What’s so surprising? People have always made assumptions about others’ guilt on the basis
of their own prejudice. What’s more alarming is that Henry III had 18 Jews executed for a crime they did not
commit. It was only thanks to Franciscan intercession that the other 73 Jews were released. While Henry II
had introduced common law into England during his reign (1154-1189), juries were more interested in local
knowledge than in what we today call evidence. And when a monarch wanted someone found guilty on trumped-up
charges, common law didn’t get a look in.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· You think it is a miracle if God does the will of your rabbi; we think it is a miracle if our
rabbi does the will of God.
- The man with an unimpressive argument rattles off many of them.
- Before you buy a house, investigate the neighbours
- I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders
- If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Benny Goodman (1909-1986)
This celebrated clarinetist and
bandleader began playing at an early age and was playing professionally at 14. He joined the Pollack band at 16
and started his own band in 1933 at 24. Following a band
performance to wild applause in Los Angeles in 1935, Goodman became known as the King of Swing. Inventive at
jazz arrangements, ingenious at improvisations and playing a blend of jazz and contemporary popular music,
Goodman led his band to pre-eminence. In 1936 he formed a quartet with Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy
Wilson which became one of the outstanding ensembles of all time. In 1938 he brought jazz to Carnegie Hall and
the concert was a wild success. This concert has been regarded by some as the most significant in jazz history.
Years of work by musicians from all over the country finally resulted in jazz being accepted by mainstream
audiences. Goodman influenced almost every jazz musician who played clarinet after him. He held an interest in
classical music written for the clarinet, and frequently met with top classical clarinetists of the day, playing
classical music as well. His influence was immense.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)
Born in Budapest, Theodor Herzl
obtained a doctorate in law in Vienna at the age of 24. For the next few years he worked as a journalist and a
playwright. He was sent to Paris to cover the Dreyfus Trial in 1894. The Trial became famous as an anti-Semitic
process which supported lies over the truth. Herzl was inspired to
seek a political solution for Jews which became known as Zionism. In 1895 he wrote a booklet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) which attracted many supporters. He
organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 which turned out to be a resounding success and was the
foundation for the World Zionist Organization. In October 1902 his utopian novel Altneuland was published; it envisaged a Jewish State in Palestine and the
ideal society that would be created there. He was only partially successful in obtaining international support
for a Jewish State in Palestine. At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Herzl vowed to fight for the
establishment of a Jewish national home in Eretz Israel. Within a year he was dead. His efforts had an enormous
influence on the world.