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Seeing Stars (Ki Tissa)

In this week’s parshah, Bnei Yisrael worship the golden calf. Given the events of the past few parshas—the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the miracles of food, water and shelter, the revelation at Sinai—few might have seen this coming. But, Rashi claims, at least one person did: Pharaoh. That’s right: according to Rashi, Pharaoh predicted, all the way back during the ten plagues, that Bnei Yisrael would succumb to idolatry upon leaving his country. (more…)

Rise and Shine (Pesach)

Every year at our Pesach seders, we recite a list of “ten plagues” which afflicted the Egyptians before they finally freed Bnei Yisrael from slavery. The ninth of these plagues is the plague of “darkness.” Growing up, I harbored a very specific conception of what it must have been like to live through this plague. I imagined Egyptians fumbling about in the darkness, constantly crossing each other’s paths; constantly colliding with each other; constantly confronting each other in a series of unexpected and undesired encounters. (more…)

The Men in the Middle (Balak)

When you study Tanakh carefully, you begin to notice that many of its protagonists bear striking similarities to each other. In literary terms, such characters are referred to as “mirror characters.” We have compared many mirror characters together in the past, including Yitzchak and Noah, Shimshon and Avshalom, and Yosef and Tamar. There are dozens of others. (more…)

Three Approaches to Pharaoh’s “Heavy Heart” (Bo)

The weaknesses of classical heroes were often associated with particular body parts. Narcissus, for instance, so admired his own appearance that he couldn’t tear himself away from the reflection of his face. Oedipus was named for his swollen feet, and it was this feature which eventually tipped off the elders of Thebes that he had murdered their former king, Laius. Achilles, of course, died when an enemy arrow pierced him in the heel, giving rise to the idiom “Achilles heel,” which we use until today. So even the mightiest of men, it turns out, can be felled — as long as you know where to strike.  For Narcissus, it was his attractive face which brought about his downfall; for Oedipus, it was his swollen feet; for Achilles, his unarmored heel.

For Pharaoh, meanwhile, it was his heavy heart. (more…)