Friday, December 31, 2010

Parsha Notes Va'ayrah 5771

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What everyone should know

About Egyptian Magic The presence of the court magicians is not necessarily evidence that the magic is real. Though Alter and Rashi agree that the story is written from the perspective of someone who believes the magicians had real power, other commentators disagree. Notably, Samson Raphael Hirsch reads the magician verses in a way that presents them as frauds. Ralbag and Seforno are two other bold face names who said the magicians were frauds. Ibn Ezra, who also doubted their power proposes that the very word latayhem (enchantments or spells) indicates their chicanary. The word, he says, comes from l-h-t, or flame, which Robert Alter says links the work of the magicians to the "fire and flash technique of the illusionist." Those who disagree with Ibn Ezra and imagine the spells were real might say the root of latayhem is l-'-t or conceal. Even according to the ancient interpreters, who almost certainly thought magic was real, what the Egyptians magicians could do were merely pale imitations of Moshe's miracles.

- The plagues:  The stuff "everyone knows" about the plagues, is actually a matter of serious dispute among the Rishonim. For instance, if you go around telling people that one frog came out of the river, and that it multiplied as it was hit, you're disregarding contrary opinions of Rabbi Eliezer ben Azarya, Rashi and the Abravenel. If you say the Israelites weren't affect by the first plagues you're over-ruling Ibn Ezra. And so on.

A gem of wingnuttery: On the plague of Frogs

External Parallels: Our parsha begins with a formula ("I am X") that is found in many ANE documents, both as a royal statement, or as the announcements of various deities. (Alter)

Against the crux: At the beginning of the parsha, God seems to say that he never once told the Patriarchs his four-letter name. Rashi says what this means is that Patriarchs weren't aware of the attribute represented by this name. [More] Alter points out that literally its true: There's no special episode, such as this one, in which God's four-letter name, or the meaning of it, is revealed; on the other hand, there's also no concrete indication that they were ignorant of it either.

Anomaly: The second time Moshe's stick* is transformed into a reptile, the animal is called a tanin. Previously its a nachash. The difference? A nachash is an ordinary snake, but a tanin might be a crocodile, or a dragon.

*Here I follow those who said there was one magic stick, which Aaron borrowed as needed.

Symmetry: The plagues come in three groups of three. The first of each triad is announced by Moshe in the morning at the water's edge, with the . the second is announced in the palace, and the third isn't announced at all. Also, the first two affect the Nile, and end with a stench. The second two involve insects (per those who take orov not as a horde of beasts but as a swarm of bugs.) The third pair are epidemics, and the fourth destroy crops. The final two plagues pair darkness with death

Historicity: The Ipuwer Papyrus is interesting but its significance is debated.

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