Saturday, December 21, 2013

Throwing soot in the air / Parshat Va'eira

Many years ago, in a frenetic flurry of preparing to travel to North Carolina for the High Holy Days, I sterilized some baby bottles to take along since I would not be “on tap” at all times. I put the bottles in a pan of water and while waiting for it to reach a boil, I went off to pack clothing. By the time I remembered the bottles, the water had long since boiled off, the bottles were beyond melted, the pot burned, and the kitchen blanketed in a black, sticky, sooty mess. It was awful, truly awful, but it was also fortunate that I didn’t burn the house down. I vividly remember that black, sooty mess. This unhappy episode came to mind while reading about the sixth plague against Egypt—boils—in this week’s parashah, Va-eira:

Then Adonai said to Moses and Aaron, “Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become a fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and cause an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast through the land of Egypt.” So they took soot of the kiln and appeared before Pharaoh; Moses threw it toward the sky, and it caused an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast. (Exodus 9:8-10)

The other nine plagues are initiated either by God, or by Moses or Aaron holding out a staff or extending an arm over Egypt. The plague of boils, however, requires that Moses and Aaron gather soot and throw it up into the air. Not only that, but God specifies that the soot must come from kilns. Why soot? And why must it come specifically from the kilns and not cooking fires or some other source?

Bricks were sun-dried in ancient Egypt, but our ancestors who told and retold the story of Israel’s servitude in, and redemption from, Egypt, knew another process: bricks baked in kilns. 

I’m guessing that they projected their method of brick production back in time onto the Egyptian venue. The image of soot acquired from kilns creates a fascinating and powerful image: To bring the sixth plague, Moses uses the very soot from the very same kilns in which the Hebrew slaves bake bricks to build Pithom and Rameses. This act is a step in the process of Israel’s redemption. The soot that is the direct byproduct of the people’s toil and suffering paves the way to their freedom.

Throwing the soot into the air becomes a symbolic gesture of the Israelites’ growing awareness of God and hence the possibilities for life that lie beyond slavery. For 400 years, Torah tells us, the Hebrew slaves toil under the Egyptian sun before they cry out to God. That is to say: it takes four centuries for them to become aware of God’s presence and hence their own value as human beings. When Moses and Aaron throw the soot in the air, it marks a step in the direction of throwing off slavery: the people are gaining an inner awareness of self, their first step toward freedom.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (c. 1730-1797) wrote in Me’or Einayim:

The secret meaning of the Egyptian exile is that true awareness was in exile; people were unable to attain the awareness required to serve our blessed Creator, that of which Scriptures says, Know your father’s God and serve Him (I Chronicles 28:9). Awareness is the root that brings one to full love and fear of God. Know in faith that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:30), there is no place devoid of God (Zohar III:225a), and that God is the true pleasure of all pleasures and the life of life. Then you will come to realize that within any pleasure, were the flow of divine light and the life-force to disappear from it, that pleasure, like all created things, would return to primal chaos, to the void. This is true of all the worlds, both higher and lower: if one could imagine that God’s vitality might depart from them, they would be as naught.

Liberation from bondage—true freedom—begins and culminates inside us. When we become aware of God (or, if you prefer, the Divine Light, or Divine Flow, or Life-force of the Universe, or Unity of All) we come to recognize our own uniqueness and value, and we come to know ourselves deeply. For the mystics, self-knowledge, knowing ourselves as we truly are deep within, is an encounter with God. It seems that in facing the challenges of life and the inevitable suffering that is part and parcel of life in this world, we have the opportunity to encounter God within (to attune ourselves to the Divine Flow) and engage with the divine. The Chernobler Rebbe also reminds us that if we shut off the valve to the Divine Flow, if we shut ourselves off from awareness and self-knowledge, we “return to primal chaos,” to greater pain and suffering.

The Exodus can be seen as a chapter in our national religious history. But it is also a paradigm for each and every individual who struggles to overcome that which binds and enslaves him or her. If we are honest with ourselves, that is each of us. Until we realize we are in bondage and that liberation is possible, until we come to know ourselves, our value, and our potential, we will remain in bondage, never changing, never growing, never moving toward freedom. The Divine Flow (or again, if you prefer the Divine Light or the Life-force of the Universe, or the Unity of All) is always available. The next move—to throw the soot into the air—is ours.

Nelson Mandela famously wrote, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” (A Long Walk To Freedom, 1994) Perhaps that is why we return to Egypt year after year for a week each spring during Pesach. We find Egypt unchanged, but with increasing self-knowledge we see how altered we are. The primal chaos of Egypt recedes further and further from the reality of our souls. Redemption comes step by step. Can you throw some soot up in the air today?

(Just to finish the story with which I opened: My husband said very little when he saw the kitchen disaster, but his fear about what might have happened was evident on his face. I scrubbed the cabinets and floor, and he repainted the entire kitchen a lovely shade of blue. Then he went out and bought me an electric kettle that turns itself off when the water reaches a boil.)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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