And the old shall see visions

And the old shall see visions Parashat Va’ era

By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, January 17, 2015

And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions,
And our hopes shall rise up to the sky.
We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.
Give us time, give us strength, give us life.
(Debby Friedman)

Parashat Va’era begins in the middle of a conversation – more like an argument, actually. The Egyptians have intensified their demand on the Hebrew slaves, and the people, in turn, have complained bitterly to Moses and Aaron – “May God punish you!” they cry out.  At the end of Shmot, the previous parashah,Moses himself cries out to God,

Oh Lord, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me?

And our portion begins with the continuation of God’s response, and the recitation of the promises we return to each year at our Passover seders:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people:  I am YHVH,
I will free you from the suffering imposed by the Egyptians
I will deliver you from slavery to them.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment
And I will take you as My people, and I will be your God,
And you shall know I am YHVH your God who freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.
I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… I am YHVH.

Dutifully, Moses repeats these promises to the people.  But they are too closed down, too depressed, too dispirited to even be able to hear Moses:  the Torah tells us they suffer from kotzer ruach.

Their spirits, crushed.  Constrained.  Not enough breath, not enough spirit, to breathe in the possibility of a new reality, a different truth, a possibility of change.

“They are not used to hearing anything other than the calls of their taskmasters and the groans of their own weary muscles,” writes Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg.   “This very inability to hear anything behond the very personal and immediate constricted quality of thir state keeps them enslaved, impervious to the possibility of an expansion of their awareness and their lives.”

And, indeed, as Rabbi Weinberg suggests, that description of “kotzer ruach” evokes a different kind of physical limitation as well – the sense of limitation that can happen to us too, as we age.  Our aches and pains can take over our attention; fatigue, in Rabbi Weinberg’s words, can
“lodge in our bones…”

Exercise, a healthy diet —  or even those more expensive options  botox…juvederm… and the rest of the plastic surgeon’s palette —  won’t mask the reality that

the old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be.   

Yet as Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “The aged thinks of himself as belonging to the past.  But it is precisely the openness to the present that he must strive for.”

It is that message that our parashah comes so vividly to teach us.

How does it do so?

Let us go back to the story. The narrator interrupts the flow of the story to recite the long lineage of Moses and Aaron, and his recitation culminates with the words: “It is the same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said, Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt….”  But Moses’ response to God’s demand was to immediately cite his limitations – why he couldn’t possibly carry out God’s demand.

But God, of course, is unrelenting  – Moses and Aaron will do it, they will play their role in God’s plan to redeem the Israelites from slavery to freedom.  But then, telling us that God refuses to take “no” for an answer, the narrator goes on to add a most unexpected line (7:6):

This Moses and Aaron did as  YHVH commanded them, so they did.  Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83, when they made their demand on Pharoah.

What is the point of telling us their age?

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, noting that this is the only time that the Bible interrupts the flow of the narration to tell us the age of a prophet, explains:

“It attributes greatness to Moses and Aaron beyond all other prophets for only to them did God appear, only to them was the Torah given…while all other prophets either predict the future or chastise behavior in the present….”

In other words, by telling us their age, the Torah is suggesting how  elevated in stature the brothers Moses and Aaron are.  The Torah is paying tribute to them.

It is not the young prince of Egypt but the more wizened and “wise-nd”  80 -year old and his 83-year-old  brother who will lead us  across the sea from the narrow place of Mitzrayim, the land of constricted consciousness, of shortness of breath, of being stuck in our own old ways, of being fearful of change –  across the sea, which will miraculously cease to be a hindrance once we have the courage to step into it.

And who knows how old the even older sister of Moses, Miriam, was  – 86 years old? 90? 95? — as she led the women in triumphant dance with drums and cymbals on the other side!

There are many older men and women in America today. In 2010, 40 million people age 65 and over lived in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the total population. 40 million in 2010. The oldest-old population (those age 85 and over) grew from just over 100,000 in 1900 to 5.5 million in 2010.  In  15 years, 2030, the older population is predicted to grow from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.

One of the most beautiful psalms in our liturgy speaks to that elderhood:

The just are as fertile as a date palm
And like a cedar on Mount Lebanon, they grow tall.
Planted in the House of Adonai, in the courtyard of our God,
They blossom –

They are fresh even in old age,
Luxuriant –
Telling that Adonai is true,
My Rock,

The psalm’s meaning becomes even more beautiful when we realize the significance of that image of a “date palm.”  Date palms are signs of an oasis, of water in the desert.  No part of a date palm is unused: Their fruits provide nourishment full of healthy energy; their pits make camel feed; their branches make shelter, and baskets to carry goods….

May we too, like the date palm, remain fresh even in old age, fruitful, luxuriant, in the gifts we can offer others, open to the present.

In the words of a contemporary writer:

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.” (Louis L’Amour)

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