Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 6-12, 2013


“Anything but a Fairy Tale”
By Hazzan Paul Buch, ‘05


While waiting to board the airplane at the start of a recent trip to Oregon, I came across a review of a new edition of The Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, edited and translated by the English author and playwright Phillip Pullman.  Much of Pullman’s well-regarded work is in the realm of fantasy and young adult literature. Though that is more the interest area of my two sons, I was intrigued nonetheless and decided to download the collection to my e-reader before takeoff.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pullman’s introduction alone made the purchase worthwhile. There he helped illuminate a key reason why I find the study of Torah so fascinating and relevant, and why I bristle at the idea that our sacred literature can be lumped with the likes of Snow White, Rumplestiltskin and Cinderella as just more fairy tales.

Before he offers his cogent and largely unexpurgated translation of 210 of the Grimm Brothers collected stories, Pullman looks at the distinguishing characteristics of the fairy tale form and points out that the literature, by definition, contains no complex characters but solely “conventional stock figures.”

“There is no psychology in a fairy tale,” Pullman writes. “The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad . . . The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious . . . They seldom have names of their own.”

And it was that last line that, like the “ding” of a passenger call button in mid-flight, connected, for me, Pullman’s insight with this week’s Torah portion.  As Parashat Va’era opens, G-d’s key concern is that Moses understand that, unlike those “stock convention figures,” lacking depth and nuance, the Holy One is a fully dimensioned being who maintains what a screenwriter (or any writer) would call a “character arc”; that G-d began a relationship with our ancestors from a certain perspective and, through events in the story of that relationship, the character changes.  “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known them by my name yud-heh-vav-heh ,” the text relates in Exodus 6:2-3. “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant.  Say therefore to the Israelite people, I am yud-heh-vav-heh.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” (Exodus 6:6.  All translations from NJPS Tanakh, 1985).

This scene, with the hesitant and unsure Moses preparing to embark on the archetypical “hero’s journey” at G-d’s behest, typifies for me why Torah has such power and relevance.  The characters of our ancient stories have both an emotional and intellectual existence.  They feel, they evolve, they respond, they grow.  When we look seriously into their personalities, we can’t help but see ourselves.  As I often share with my students, the challenges and situations our ancestors faced, viewed through the lens of Torah, are the same we face today- how to overcome that which holds us back from living a meaningful, integrated life; how to summon the courage to tackle the seemingly impossible; how to find a source of strength and support to carry us through great challenges.

When Theodore Herzl set out to convince world leaders and specifically world Jewry that the creation of a Jewish state was possible, most said to him, “You’re crazy!”  But Herzl, motivated, it seems, by scenes such as we find in this week’s portion, would respond with a quip that contained a not-so subtle reference to the tales of the Grimms. “Wenn ihr vollt, Ist es kein Märchen,” he would say, using a phrase ending with the German word,that was part of the title of the original 1805 Grimm edition (Kinder- und Hausmärchen- Children’s and Household Tales).  This became a famous saying when brought into Hebrew as Im tirtzu, ein zu agadah, but rendered directly in English it means “If you want something bad enough, it’s no fairy tale.”  May these words and all the best teachings of our tradition continue to inspire and guide us as we, like Moses and yes, even G-d, encounter the next chapter in our Märchen.