(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 1/12/18)
Thoughts on Vaera (5778/2018)
(Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)
It has been another one of those frustrating days in our country when we are drained and demoralized by the latest stain on America’s reputation in the world. One of the top trending search terms on Twitter today is an eight-letter word allegedly spoken by President Trump that I am not going to repeat here. He reportedly used it in a White House meeting yesterday with congressional leaders to describe countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America from which he would prefer we do not accept immigrants.
These were countries with majority non-white populations.
By contrast, he is reported to have wondered aloud why we could not be trying to get more folks from places like Norway.
My reflexive reaction as a way of fortifying myself today was to reach for the 12th century advice of Abraham Ibn Ezra in the poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” which is one of those traditional zemirot sung on Shabbat. It’s chorus and first verse go like this:
כִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה שַׁבָּת אֵל יִשְׁמְרֵֽנִי,
אוֹת הִיא לְעֽוֹלְמֵי עַד בֵּינוֹ וּבֵינִי.
אָסוּר מְצֹא חֵֽפֶץ עֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכִים,
גַּם מִלְּדַבֵּר בּוֹ דִּבְרֵי צְרָכִים,
דִּבְרֵי סְחוֹרָה אַף (אוֹ) דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים,
אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי.
Ki Eshm'rah Shabbat El Yishm'reini,
Ot hi lol'mei Ad Beino uveini.
Asur M'tso chefetz, Asot d'rachim,
Gam mil'daber bo divrei ts'rachim,
Divrei s'chora af (o) divrei m'lachim, ehgeheh b'torat Eyl utchakmeini.
“If I keep the Sabbath, God will keep me. It is a sign for ever between God and me.
"Forbidden are business or practical tasks, Even speaking of the things we need, Or about money or politics; I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”
Thus, Ibn Ezra advises us that on Shabbat we should avoid the workaday preoccupations of the rest of the week, not least of which is דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים “divrei melachim”.
This expression “divrei melachim” is often translated as “politics” but it can also literally be translated as “words of rulers”.
Well, the words of THIS nation’s head of government that we learned about this week are certainly worthy of being banished from our hearts and minds if we wish to create a nation of brotherhood and sisterhood and a world of Shabbat peace.
Yes, perhaps we are indeed better off following Ibn Ezra’s example:
אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי / Ehgeh betorat Eyl, utechakmeinu --- “I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”
So, let us not focus on the explicit word that President Trump has made famous in this week’s news reports. Instead let us focus on an ambiguous word found in this week’s Torah portion.
It’s the word עָרֹב (“arov”) which first appears at Exodus 8:17.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era, includes the account of the first seven of the ten plagues that God inflicts upon the Egyptians before they are willing to let the Israelites go forth from slavery to freedom.
“Arov” is the name of the fourth of the plagues.
As we read in Exodus 8: 16-18:
16 The Eternal said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning and set yourself before Pharaoh as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, 'Thus says the Eternal: Let My people go that they may worship Me. 17 For if you do not let My people go, I will send against you and your servants and your nation and your houses the “arov” – and the “arov” will fill all the houses of the Egyptians, as well as the ground they stand on. 18 But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no “arov” shall be there, that you may know that I the Eternal am in the midst of the land.
What does the Torah mean by “arov?”
The sense of the Hebrew name for that fourth plague is somewhat ambiguous. The word “arov” in Exodus 8:17 literally means “mixture,” without specifying what sort of mixture. Older Bible translations, following Rashi’s commentary, translate “arov” as a mixture of different kinds of wild animals. Other translations, including the Jewish Publication Society version used in the Plaut Torah commentary propose that “arov” refers to a swarm – specifically, a swarm of insects.
The same word, with slightly different vowels, also describes the “mixed multitude” עֵרֶב רַב (erev rav) who ultimately went forth from Egypt along with the ethnic Israelites.
Yet another use of the same word ,“erev,” brings us the idea of “evening.”
Erev tov/ good evening.
Erev Shabbat/ Sabbath Eve.
Ma’ariv/’ the evening prayer service.
For what is evening, erev, but a mixture of day just ending and night just beginning? (Remember that traditionally, Kabbalat shabbat services would be beginning just as the sun was setting.).
This plague of “mixture”/ “arov”, like all the other plagues in the Passover story, strikes at the Egyptians but spares the Israelites.
Looked at in a more symbolic manner, we might say that the phenomena described in our Torah portion harm only those who of their own accord experience “mixture” as a plague: Those who would cling to a society that seeks to deify itself while enslaving those who are different.
But on the other hand, if we embrace diversity rather than trying to subjugate it, then the mixture is no longer a curse but a blessing. AROV/MIXTURE becomes not a plague of swarming insects or marauding wild animals, but rather a multicolored panorama of God’s work of creation.
We find a related idea in the wording of the traditional blessing for Torah study. When we have our Saturday morning Torah study group each week, we usually just recite the first sentence of that blessing, in which we praise God for the mitzvah of “La’asok bedivrei Torah”/ “Occupying ourselves with words of Torah.” However, the longer form of the blessing, continues by quoting language taken from the Talmud (Berachot 11b):
הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיפיות עמך בית ישראל
“[M]ake sweet (Hebrew: “ha’arev”), Adonai, our God, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel,
The word “ha’arev” is a verb form (hifil) that shows causation so “ha’arev” means “cause those words of Torah to be arov -- sweet or pleasant.
Think about this concept: MIXED = SWEET OR PLEASANT.
“Please, O Adonai our God, “HA’AREV” “make sweet” (or “make pleasant”) the words of your Torah in our mouths.”
Here we understand that the idea of a mixture/ “AROV” can imply sweetness and pleasantness – not just fearful swarms.
It all depends on how we view “mixing” (“Arov”) in general.
And what about EREV/THE MIXTURE OF DAY AND NIGHT/ WHICH WE CALL EVENING…
When we have faith that the protecting embrace of God is with us in the dark of night as well as in the light of day, then this transitional time, moving from day to night, becomes for us a time of blessing, not a time of fear and anxiety.
As we mark the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend we recall that one of the most inspiring aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was that it brought together an “Erev Rav” / “a mixed multitude” of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds in the fight for civil equality for all.
And, similarly, a mixed multitude of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds have come to the United States from before its founding to the present day. They haven’t all come from wealthy countries. They haven’t all come from majority white countries either. We can “Make America Great Again” by remembering that our strength as a nation is in our diversity.
We continue to see in the unfolding of history, the transformation of plague to blessing as we “mix things up” in our lives. As we share our Torah with others and as we take in the Torah that others share with us. Then “Arov” becomes not a plague but a blessing. Not swarms but sweetness.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (January 2018/ Tevet 5778)
 Exodus 12:38