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Parashat — 01/15/2009

Weekly Torah portion:

Parashat Va’era

submitted by Robert Rabinoff
At the end of Parashat Shemot we left Moshe Rabbeinu apparently questioning Gd’s ways, and Gd reassuring him that “now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh” to free Israel from slavery (my quote marks).  As our Parashah begins Gd continues speaking with Moshe and points out to him that despite the fact that the Patriarchs did not have as comprehensive a revelation of Gd as Moshe had been given, yet their faith didn’t waver, and certainly not at the first setback.  Furthermore, the faith of the Israelites was not very strong, as they also despaired of salvation.  The Israelites at least had the excuse that they were subjected to incessant, backbreaking labor, imposed with physical violence.  Of course Pharaoh and the Egyptians had no belief in H” at all, in any manifestation.  Gd was “forced” as it were to embark in a massive educational exercise – Gd had to teach faith to Moshe Rabbeinu, the people of Israel, and Egypt and the rest of the world.  The first 7 stages of this exercise form the great bulk of our Parashah.

The Ten Plagues are traditionally divided into 3 groups of 3 plus the Plague of the Firstborn.  Each group of three consists of two plagues that were given with a warning – the first warning as Pharaoh went to the river (Nile) in the morning to bathe, and the second in Pharaoh’s palace, where Moshe and Aharon would enter, unbidden, and deliver their message from H”.   The third plague in each group was brought on with no further warning.  In Jewish Law only two witnesses are required to warn someone who is about to commit a transgression, to make that person liable for punishment by a beit din (Jewish court).  The first two plagues in each group were the “witnesses” and the third was the actual punishment.

In addition, within each group, the first plague (blood, swarms of wild animals, hail) made the Egyptians feel powerless in their environment – and Moshe met Pharaoh at the river Nile.  The second plague (frogs, epidemics, locusts) made the Egyptians feel powerless in their houses – and Moshe met Pharaoh in his palace.  The third plague in each group (lice, boils, palpable darkness) made the Egyptians feel powerless over their own bodies.  An object lesson on the grandest scale!

Each group of three plagues had a specific point to make, as the text brings out.  The first group demonstrates that H” is Gd.  This answers Pharaoh’s arrogant question “Who is H”?”  The second 3 demonstrate that “I am H” in the midst of the Land.”  That is, I may be transcendent and beyond nature, but I am also concerned about every action that takes place on every level of manifest creation, and will take action to correct any imbalance.  I think this answers the second part of Pharaoh’s question – “[Who is H”] that I should listen to him?”  The last group demonstrates that “There is no power like me in the whole universe.”  All powers, all tendencies, even the most polar opposites are subsumed in Gd, and He can take mighty nations and toy with them at will (as we have seen in our own day and even in our own country).  Perhaps we can say that this provides a counterpoint to Pharaoh’s stubborn “I will not let the Israelites go!”

Each of these points goes to a fundamental issue of faith.  We must have faith based on knowledge and experience that there is a Gd.  We must have faith based on knowledge and experience that Gd is concerned with us, with our growth, with our happiness.  And we must have faith based on knowledge and experience that Gd is able to arrange the world that He created to deal with these concerns.

Any good teacher will tell you that the key to a successful lesson is “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them.”  As an introduction to the 10 plagues Gd instructs Moshe and Aharon to go to Pharaoh and to cast his staff on the ground, where it would become a tannin (snake or crocodile – the word is used in modern Hebrew for crocodile or alligator, but in this context it is generally translated snake).  The Egyptian magicians turn their staves into tanninim as well.  The text then tells us that “Aharon’s staff swallowed those of the Egyptians.”  The commentators point out that this swallowing took place after the tannin had turned back into a staff!  Maybe we can view this as the “main points” of the upcoming lessons:  Gd exists – it is only upon His command, relayed by Moshe, that the staff turns into a tannin.  Gd is concerned with what is going on here on earth – He bothers to convey His message to us; He reveals himself to us so that we can come to know Him.  Finally, Gd is the only power that exists – Aharon’s staff swallows up the staves that represent any other, lower power (read: technology) that human beings can muster.

Now we will follow the main body of instruction.  Seven plagues are in our Parashah, and the remaining three are next week.  The final summary will take place in two weeks; it is only after crossing the Sea and seeing the Egyptians “dead on the seashore” that Torah testifies that the Israelites finally “saw the great Power that Gd displayed in Egypt, and they believed in God and in Moshe His servant.”

Let me conclude with one last point.  Gd emphasizes on many occasions throughout this saga that the purpose of the exercise is that both Israel and Egypt (that is, Jews and non-Jews both – every human being on earth) know Gd.  Why is this so important to Gd?  I believe the answer is simply that this is the very purpose of Gd’s creation of human beings with free will.  We alone have the power to move closer to Gd or the opposite.  When we are first created a separation is created between Gd, on the side of universality and infinity, and the individual, limited self.  When we use our free will properly, that gap is bridged – the two sides, which are intrinsically completely different, nevertheless become connected; a relationship is formed.  In this relationship there is something more, as it were, than is available to the two sides individually.  In the expression of R. A. J. Heschel, Gd needs human beings to help create this wholeness.  In creating this wholeness, in bridging the gap that separates us from Gd, we play out the story of Exile and Redemption in our individual lives, that is writ large on the national scale in the Parshiyot of these several weeks.  In the Haggadah we read that “in every generation we must feel that we personally were redeemed from Egypt.”  We do this every time we perform Gd’s will and come closer to our own ultimate fulfillment.