Parashat Va’eira | Rabbi Avraham
The dramatic story of the redemption of the enslaved people of Israel from their Egyptian masters takes up the first four portions of the book of Exodus. Of these, the second – our present portion – and the one that follows it describe in graphic detail the series of Ten Plagues with which God struck Egypt until they capitulated and sent their slaves forth to freedom. Our present portion tells of the first seven plagues, while the one that follows describes the last three.
The drama of the plagues is central to the entire Torah: What does it come to teach us?
The narrative is not addressed to Israel alone, even though they were the ones who were redeemed. They played a relatively passive role in their redemption. They cried out to God over their plight (Exodus 2:23), and when Moses and Aaron came to their elders announcing their imminent redemption, they had faith and believed (ibid. 4:30-31). Yet in the entire drama of the Ten Plagues, the Israelites did little but witness events. It was Moses who stood forth to warn Pharaoh to repent, raising his rod to invoke each plague. Only prior to the last plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, did the Israelites slaughter their paschal lambs, and the next morning they marched out of Egypt to freedom carrying their un-risen, hastily baked bread on their backs (Exodus ch 12).
The supreme might that God displayed in each of the successive plagues was certainly intended to leave it’s mark on the Israelites and their descendants for ever: “That you may tell in the ears of your son and your son’s son what I have done in Egypt and My signs which I have worked among them, that you may know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 10:2). “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Ex. 13:8).
But the Plagues were also sent to teach a great lesson to Pharaoh himself, to the Egyptians, and to all humanity for ever after.
God could have brought one cataclysmic disaster upon Egypt and released the Israelite slaves in a moment. Instead He sent a succession of successively more invasive plagues, giving Pharaoh a respite and an opportunity to repent each time. God told Pharaoh that the reason He let him survive was precisely to show him His might: “But in very deed for this cause have I made you stand, to show you My power, and that My name may be declared throughout all the earth” (Ex. 9:16). The lesson of the Ten Plagues is for everyone.
The archetypal rebel
In the previous portion we read that when Moses came to Pharaoh the first time to ask him in the name of HaShem to release Israel from their bondage, Pharaoh answered: “Who is HaShem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know HaShem, and moreover I will not let Israel go!” (Ex. 5:2).
With these words Pharaoh showed himself the archetype of the self-willed human who arrogantly rebels against his Maker regardless of the fact that God always has the upper hand since He controls all creation, and will sooner or later kill this creature – because no human can escape death. “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me; I kill, and I make alive; I have wounded, and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand (Deuteronomy 32:39).
God in His goodness initially uses kind and gentle ways to bring us to know and serve Him. But if we are stubborn and will not acknowledge Him, if we refuse to bend our will to His, He may show us greater and greater force, as in the narrative of the plagues, where God attacks Pharaoh from every direction through His many agents and emissaries, the armies of humble frogs, the swarms of gnats and locusts, the wild animals, the catastrophic hail, the minute “viruses” that caused the infectious cattle and sheep disease and the boils…
Under the full fire of each plague in its time Pharaoh would momentarily relent: “And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them: ‘I have sinned this time; HaShem is righteous, and I and my people are wicked .” (Ex. 9:27). But as soon as the crisis passed, Pharaoh’s heart was again hardened, and he reverted to his view that the plagues were mere “chance”, “bad luck” containing no lesson or message, as if the world has no Judge.
But the Torah warns: “And if you walk contrary to Me and will not listen to Me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. And if in spite of these things you will not be corrected to Me but will walk contrary to Me, then will I also walk contrary unto you, and I will strike you, even I, seven times for your sins. (Leviticus ch 26 vv 21-24).
In the biblical Hebrew, the word translated in the above text as “contrary” is KERI, which has the connotation of “chance”. If people believe that all is “chance” and “luck” with no law and no Judge – a belief that permits one to use any means to attain one’s objectives – God may use all manner of “chance occurrences” and “accidents” to chastise them. In order to test us, this world is evidently arranged so that many things appear to happen “by chance”. Yet beneath the veil of material “reality” stands the all-powerful controlling “hand” of God Almighty.
Even the greatest and most powerful people must understand that they are but instruments in the hands of God to work His purpose. How much more so must ordinary people recognize that we are His creations and are duty bound to serve Him. The story of the catastrophe that Pharaoh brought upon himself and all Egypt through his stubborn rebellion against God comes to teach us all a stark lesson in the fear of God Almighty.
“Should the axe boast itself against the one that hews with it? Should the saw magnify itself against the one that moves it? As if a rod should move those that lift it up, or as if a staff should lift up the one that is not wood” (Isaiah 10:15).
“But the wicked are like the troubled sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters cast up mire and dirt” (Isaiah 57:20).
“Just like the sea, where the waves rise up proudly each in turn, but as each wave reaches the sand it is broken and retreats, but the wave that follows it sees how it was broken yet he too arrogantly rises up and refuses to back down – so are the wicked. They see each other’s destruction yet they still rise up arrogantly, and that is why they are compared to the sea” (Midrash Tanchuma Leviticus 7).