PARASHAT VAERA - ROSH HODESH
January 20, 2007 – 1 Shevat 5767
Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 8:16-9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 362; Hertz p. 240)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, :66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220 Hertz p. 944)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
God renews the promise of redemption to Moses and the Israelites.
The first seven of the ten plagues occur in this parashah. Pharaoh is stubborn, refusing to accede to Moses’ requests. (He seems to regard the plagues as magic, magic, moreover, that his own magicians sometimes can match.) Under the duress of a plague, he does appear to go along with Moses and claims to be ready to free the people, but after the crisis passes he changes his mind.
Issue #1: Who's in Charge: Pharaoh, Moses, or God?
From time to time, we all have seen situations in which a toddler’s petulant behavior may dictate the behavior of the adults in the room. Through stubbornness or impulsiveness, the child finds a way to control the actions of those who ought to be in charge. Sometimes, however, parents may have made a conscious decision to avoid bickering with the child, and they allow the child to think that he/she can decide what happens next, while in fact they have carefully limited the range of possible outcomes.
In the unfolding drama of this week’s parashah, Pharaoh behaves in a petulant, almost infantile, manner. While we can understand that a monarch may have a need to demonstrate control over his surroundings – especially a monarch who seeks to project an aura of divinity – we sense that Pharaoh has gone overboard. Meanwhile, Moses is assisting God in demonstrating that Pharaoh is a mere mortal, powerless to counteract divinely ordained plagues. Time and again, Pharaoh appears to surrender under pressure. However, once the crisis of the moment has passed, Pharaoh reasserts his kingly prerogatives.
Pharaoh seems to be accustomed to using people to extract from them the results that serve his purposes. In Pharaoh’s mind, Moses is a useful instrument for communicating with the God of the Israelites, particularly for bringing an end to the plague of the moment. This attitude may reflect the close intertwining of magic and religion in ancient Egypt. Moses surely is aware that this pigeonholing is not a compliment to Moses, and certainly not to God.
It is no surprise that Moses, who does not have the power to dictate every detail of Pharaoh’s behavior, sometimes humors Pharaoh by allowing him the illusion of control. At the end of the second plague, we read the following dialogue:
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the Lord to remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the [Israelite] people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile?” “For tomorrow,” he replied. And [Moses] said, as you say – that you may know that there is none like the Lord our God; the frogs shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile.” But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken. (Exodus 8:4-12)
In connection with which other plagues did Pharaoh make promises and then change his mind?
This assumes that the decisions Pharaoh made were totally under his control. There is a tradition in Midrash Rabbah that suggests that Pharaoh didn’t have the choice to choose:
When God perceived that he did not relent after the first five plagues, He decided that even if Pharaoh now wished to repent, He would harden his heart in order to exact the whole punishment from him. As the Lord had spoken to Moses – for so it is written: “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart.”
How does that rabbinic understanding influence the way we might perceive the drama taking place between Moses and Pharaoh? If Pharaoh did not have the ability to keep his promises, could they really be promises? What of today’s politicians, who make what seem to be promises knowing that they cannot keep them?
Issue #2: Punishment
A just God wishes to avoid collective punishment of all the people of Egypt. This is not easily accomplished, because the behavior of their intransigent monarch must be changed. The seventh plague, hail, was designed in such a way that free Egyptians who heeded God’s warnings were able to escape harm.
Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety; but those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open. (Exodus 9:20-21)
The rabbis, in Midrash Rabbah, wondered why God would “punish” the land of Egypt: Why did He bring hail upon them? Because they had made the Israelites planters of their vineyards, gardens, orchards, and trees; on this account did He bring upon them hail which destroyed all these plantations.
Why would that be an important question to address? Is there a lesson we can learn when the rabbis make the point that even the land was to be punished for mistreating the Israelites?
Yet, ultimately it was not just the land, but some of the Egyptian people as well who suffered from the plague. Midrash Rabbah notes:
“Upon men and upon beast.” When God saw that they heeded not His warning: “bring in the cattle,” He said, “They deserve that the hail should descend upon all things.”
Can we understand this issue of punishment in the context of the area of choice noted above? If there were Egyptians who chose to follow God’s directive, were they treated differently than their neighbors who did not? Could this have been away of lessening the impact on the Egyptians for Pharaoh’s decisions?
Many of the plagues distinguished in their impact between the Israelites and the Egyptian population. Note the differential impact of the plagues, as narrated in the following passages: Exodus 8:18-20, Exodus 9:6, and Exodus 10:23.
For each of those plagues, are there ways of understanding why the difference in impact between the Egyptians and the Israelites?