Va’era: Exodus 6:2-9:35
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Va’era: Exodus 6:2-9:35

Competitive religion: And the winner is...

In this week’s Torah portion, there is fierce competition between God and Pharaoh. The prize: B’nai Yisrael. While Pharaoh wants Israel for his labor force, God wants Israel to create a culture of justice in a land of its own. Moses and Aaron are charged by God to present themselves before Pharaoh as God’s prophets and demand the liberation of the Israelites, using the power God invests in them to challenge Pharaoh and his magicians. It’s Team God versus Team Pharaoh. Pharaoh resists Aaron and Moses’ demand to release the Israelites. Pharaoh: “Show me what you got!” Aaron is up. To intimidate Pharaoh, Aaron turns his staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s magicians match Aaron’s feat by turning their staves into serpents. Aaron’s return is startling; his staff swallows the magicians’ staves. The competition is fierce. The serpent challenge was only a demonstration of God’s powers. The narrative goes from jousting to serious business: Aaron delivers the first punishment for Pharaoh’s obstinacy, turning the Nile blood red. The water becomes rancid, the fish die, and the Egyptians cannot drink it.

Pharaoh’s magicians are up. But it seems that Pharaoh and company do not recognize the change from demonstrating God’s power to punishing Pharaoh. Most likely perceiving the polluting of the Nile as a continuation of God-jousting, the magicians, too, turn water into blood and further deprive the Egyptian people of their resources. This time, the Egyptians suffer because of the Egyptian magicians. After Egypt is afflicted with boils, Pharaoh’s magicians lose their will and their powers to compete. We no longer read about Pharaoh’s magicians.

Pharaoh wanted Israelite labor to build monuments. God wanted Israel to build a nation and a moral force among the nations. Through Moses and Aaron, God humiliates Pharaoh, elevates His reputation, and forces Pharaoh to free Israel from oppression. This is a win we can live with, for the story is not only about God-jousting, but also about fighting for the dignity of people. Our tradition has it that besides Israel’s suffering, we are saddened by the loss of Egyptian life during that time, even for the loss of the Egyptian soldiers who chased after us.

God-jousting continues in our day. From time to time, we hear Jews complain about religious zealots who want to “witness” to the Jewish people. Aggressive missionaries and their large churches concern us less these days, as there seem to be fewer of them. Still, there are around us religionists who believe it is their duty to deliver their message to all whose souls are in jeopardy because they have not accepted the true God. What is interesting is that some Jewish community leaders have looked at the leaders and worshippers in mega-churches to see what they are doing right – not unlike GM researching Toyota’s successes. While it may be true that some of these institutions think of Jews as having floating souls looking for spiritual anchors, the Jewish need to make Jews better Jews is a secular effort to compete better as a spiritual enterprise. In another time, such efforts would be unheard of.

In our own communities, we not only have God-jousting, but also competitive Judaisms; some claim truth as their ally, while others depend on a consumer approach promoting personal research (not just “searching”) of Jewish sources to understand “truths” in their historic and spiritual contexts. Yes, there are other divides, including the differences in participation in Jewish life by Jews who adhere to communal norms as compared to those who believe in personal autonomy. This is more than God-jousting. This is about competing personal and communal values over the frequency of contact with whatever Jewish community a Jew subscribes to – if any.

The coincidence of Shabbat and the secular New Year may make us wonder whose voice we Jews hear. People tend to argue more about the big picture, about events that are far away and touch them least. It’s a way for us to avoid confronting our personal conflicts. But right in front of us are two institutions of the calendar that are metaphors for larger issues about how we negotiate our identity as Jews. Tonight, there is a competition whose cyclic coincidence gives another opportunity for this kind of discussion. There will be variations of celebration from Shabbat observance in synagogue and home to full recognition of New Year 2011 with no regard for Shabbat. Tonight is not about two calendars and two observances in competition. Tonight is a measure of our Jewish consciousness and sensibility. I have no doubt those Jews entering the night as sincere Jews, no matter the content of their observances, will exit the Shabbat just as concerned and sincere about their Jewish commitments. But their commitments as Jews are not consummated in the clouds. No matter how we Jews come out on whose idea of God is the truth or how they will negotiate observance of Shabbat and the New Year, Jews who subscribe and participate in the Jewish community, whether in large or small groups and institutions, have a surer place in the progress of the Jewish people. No argument there. In the style of Andy Rooney: “Happy secular 2011. Thank goodness it’s in the year of their Lord. We have enough problems of our own.”

Shabbat shalom.

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