Parshat Vaera: Nature, Human Nature, and the Power of Flexibility

Parashat Vaera: Nature, Human Nature and the Power of Flexibility

By Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, Chairman of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership 

At times, difficulty in interpreting a specific issue in the verses of the Torah can allow us to explore a broader issue in Jewish teachings on life. I feel that this is the case for the puzzling botanical description in chapter 9, verses 31-32 of the Book of Exodus. The Torah takes the trouble to explain that the plague of hail, and the havoc it had wreaked in Egypt, affected only one particular crop, and had no effect on any other plant life.

Though the flax and the barley have been broken, for the barley is in the ear, and the flax is in the stalk… the wheat and the spelt, however, have not been broken because they ripen late.

We don’t encounter such fine details in the Torah’s description of any of the other plagues in Egypt. Rashi, too, sensed a problem, and suggested an explanation of his own, albeit rather technical. He felt that if it weren’t for these two verses, the reader would feel puzzled by the description of the next plague, wondering what was left in the fields for the locusts to decimate.

However, I feel that this verse is not only concerned with a description of what had remained intact but also a explanation of why certain plants survived while others were eliminated.  The key distinction here is between flexibility and rigidity. Plants that had become fully ripened were rigid and were destroyed, while the younger, more supple plants persevered, due to their flexibility. Paradoxically, anything that can accept and absorb an opposing force is stronger, while things that are hardened and to resist an opposing force will break.

This more philosophical answer, however, brings an inevitable follow-up question: Why bring this lesson in the context of plagues that afflicted Egypt and its Pharaoh? And why at this juncture in the Torah’s narrative?  Looking at the larger context, the connection becomes clear. At several junctures within the story of the ten plagues, we read that Hashem “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (or that Pharaoh, himself, hardened his own heart), and that Pharaoh had refused to let the Jewish people go. The parallel between nature’s rigidity and Pharaoh’s rigidity is striking. 

This being the case, the botanical nature lesson reflects an additional parallel truth about human nature. Sometimes, softness and flexibility indicate strength and fortitude, while rigidity belies weakness and vulnerability. There are worldviews that are less complex than that of the Torah, that associate strength with impenetrable armor. Yet anyone who has studied the story of David and Goliath surely understands that speed, agility and the ability to adapt dynamically to an evolving reality are paramount to building the most effective protection against external threats.

In fact, this parallel lesson may be extended to many fields of inquiry: from nature to politics, economic competition, and to correctly navigating the pitfalls of everyday experience. Moreover, on an ideological and theological level, the fundamentalist approach argues that one can build a hermetically sealed wall that will withstand new challenges that threaten one’s values or way of life. 

One way of responding to external challenges is to hunker down and surround ourselves in an impregnable wall designed to keep out those “gusty winds,” or the “barad” of today. But that would mean avoiding the internet, feminism, and values like autonomy, democracy and equality. We’d never study modern humanities, limiting our studies to professions that allow us to earn a living and survive. Fundamentalists such as these would avoid much of that which is positive, merely in order to maintain impenetrable armor.

Yet, in every generation, there is wind and hail – every generation comes with its own challenges. In line with this reality, the more flexible our interpretation of the Torah, the stronger our faith. This is precisely how the sages of past generations viewed the practice of Biblical interpretation, as they fostered a culture that tolerates and even encourages a spectrum of answers to myriads of questions. 

The same applies, I believe, to pedagogical approaches. Two schools of thought concerning fortitude are in constant friction. Some teachers believe that teaching one solid truth rather than “confusing” students with conflicting theories is the best way to educate toward religious belief, while other pedagogues believe that one empowers the students by supplying them with plural models of belief and interpretation. 

For example, if teachers teach the Midrash (Sifrei) that instructs us to heed the words of our sages, even if it seems to us that they are “calling the left right, and the right left,”  but avoid teaching the opposing excerpt from the beginning of Tractact Horayot which encourages scholars to remain faithful to what they know to be true, Judaism will indeed be simpler.  However, it will also be far less flexible, and consequently, weaker.  Similarly, if our children don’t learn the minority opinion held by Gersonides, who rejected the majority opinion about personal Divine providence, they will be deprived of their ability to be flexible in their thinking. Perhaps some of these students might have found in Gersonides’ renegade approach a solution or at least partial solution to a major theological challenge. 

It seems that standard religious education has yet to adopt the model of the wheat and the spelt, opting instead for the failing model of the flax and the barley.

I will conclude with a personal anecdote. Seven years after making aliya in the 1970s, while I was in reserve duty, I met someone from my hometown whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I asked him how he was doing; he answered that he was an engineer, working for the Israel Aircraft Industries. I took the risk of asking him a follow-up question (risky, since my knowledge of science is rather dismal): “What kind of engineering do you practice?” I asked him. “I work in fracture mechanics,” he answered, then explained that that every material, even the toughest of metals, will develop fractures over time. The role of the engineer is to try and predict where and when cracks would develop in the aircraft, in light of flight velocity and sortie frequency, altitude, the temperatures the aircraft would need to contend with, as well as the structure of the vessel, its joints and its angles.

I was exhilarated by his response. This was but another argument in support of the approach of “flexibility as fortitude.” Hail will continue to fall, winds will penetrate barriers, fractures will surely come. Therefore, we will try to engineer the nature of our education and our lives, based on the model of the wheat and the spelt.

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