D’var Torah for Friday, December 31, 2021

This week’s parasha, Vaera, provides a fascinating exploration of the human condition, or really of human psychology. It begins with God convincing Moses to go and perform the serpent into the rod sign, which Moses did. Pharoah’s magicians were able to replicate this sign, but then Aaron’s rod, swallowed the rods of Pharoah’s magicians. Nonetheless, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he was unconvinced. This pattern replicates itself to some degree over the course of the first six plagues of blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence an inflammation. Each time, Pharaoh witnesses God’s power, and yet, he ultimately remains unconvinced. Only with the seventh plague of hail, does Pharaoh begin to come to his senses, but by then it is too late for Pharaoh and Egypt.


As the saying attributed to Julius Caesar goes, “Ut est rerum omnium magister usus” (roughly “Experience is the teacher of all things” or more generally “experience is the best teacher”). This is based on the notion that experience leads to wisdom. However, many of us have learned, including from Pharaoh, experience does not always lead to insight and right action. It can also lead people to become more entrenched in their beliefs as we have seen it played out over and over again these past two years.


Instead, experience, negative or positive, only really helps us if we reflect on it, learn the right lessons from it, and work to change ourselves for the better. The secular New Year’s celebration is all about the promotion of resolutions. For example, this is a very popular time for people signing up for the gym, determined to make their physical self to be more comparable to what they have always envisioned. Sadly, more often than naught, they give up after a few days or weeks because results take time.


Collectively our people and we as individuals have had a wealth of experiences. And as our Torah portion is reminding us, we have at least a couple of options. One is to be more like Pharaoh, who learned all the wrong lessons. Or the other option is to be more like Moses, who albeit reluctantly, learned the right lessons. The journey towards the Exodus was imperfect and the Israelites failed more often than they succeeded. But in the end, they did achieve their dream of settling in the land of Canaan. 


It was a tough journey, but they were ultimately redeemed. Our world has faced some setbacks as of late especially with regards to the pandemic. It is tempting to give up hope. But we know through right action and the application of lessons learned, better days, and perhaps even redemption from this virus, do lay ahead. In the meantime, let’s just keep working on changing ourselves for the better, so that way we can be ready for the days that lay ahead both in darkness and in light.


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Secular New Year,

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff