Shabbat candles: 4:40 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
“And Egypt shall know that I am God when I stretch My hand over Egypt: and I shall take the Children of Israel out from among them” [Exodus 7: 5]
The portion of Va’era opens at a time of grave despair. At the conclusion of last week’s reading, Moses had accepted God’s call to take the Hebrews out of bondage. His visit to Pharaoh, however, turned into a disaster. Not only does Pharaoh refuse to allow the Hebrews a three-day respite for a sacrificial celebration in the desert, he even increases their workload by making them find their own straw for making bricks.
Moses tearfully remonstrates with God: “As soon as I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he made things worse…” [Ex. 5:22]. God promises that Pharaoh will send them out, and God introduces Himself as the God of history and freedom, delineating the four (or five) redemptions — or stages of redemption — which will occur in Egypt.
But the Hebrews, frustrated and skeptical, refuse to listen to Moses’ optimistic promise of the forthcoming redemption. Moses takes his cue from them, likewise questioning: “If indeed the Children of Israel don’t listen to me, how can I expect Pharaoh to listen to me?” [Ex. 6:12].
God chooses not to respond to Moses’ logical reaction. In what appears to be a new beginning to the Book of Exodus, the text re-introduces us to Moses by presenting, for the first time, his lineage going back to Jacob, and then delineating the first seven plagues.
Why the ten-plague plethora of body blows to Egyptian society which only seems to harden Pharaoh’s heart even more? Why not simply end the Egyptian servitude immediately?
Rashi provides a very clear explanation: God wanted to teach the Hebrews the greatness of God, and the strength of His will to abolish slavery. God was not ready to redeem Israel until they had also repented, until they were truly worthy of redemption. “Such is the way of the Holy One Blessed be He: He brings punishment on the nations of the idolaters in order that Israel may hear and revere [God]…” [Ex. 7:3, Rashi].
God’s name in this biblical verse is Y-H-V-H, the God of history, love and redemption. The God of history must work with the nations of the world, and especially with His covenantal nation, Israel. Egypt must be brought to its knees, and Israel must repent before God and truly desire freedom; only then will they be redeemed. And so God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” until Israel repented.
The Seforno justifies the lengthy process of the plagues not so much for the sake of Israel’s repentance, but rather for the sake of the Egyptians’ repentance: “Since God desires the repentance of the wicked and not their death, as it is written, ‘As I live,’ says God, ‘I do not desire the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked repent of their ways and live’ [Ezekiel 33:11], so God declares that he will greatly increase His signs and His wonders in order for Egypt to repent as He made known to them His greatness and His loving kindness with His signs and His wonders...”
To be sure, the Seforno also mentions that the plagues brought the Israelites to repentance. However he emphasizes the fact that Egypt was a lesson to the world; that no human ought to be enslaved and no human might enslave others! And the Seforno goes on to explain that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the fifth plague in order that the totalitarian autocrat would release the Hebrews not because of the devastation of the plagues, but because he had truly repented.
This is why our biblical portion concludes with the seventh plague, the plague of hail (barad). During the other plagues, Pharaoh seemed to relent for a brief period of time, but only because it appeared as if the strength and power of the God of Israel was greater than the strength and power of the gods of Egypt, or at least of the Egyptian magicians. The struggle seems to be the power of God versus the power of the idols.
Only after the seventh plague does Pharaoh declare to Moses and Aaron, “I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous and my nation are sinners” [Ex. 9:27]. Only at this point does Pharaoh realize that it is a moral struggle; a religious struggle, and not a power struggle. It is not might pitted against might, but rather might pitted against right; the God of love, redemption and freedom (for all) against the Pharaonic gods of force and enslavement of the weak.
And this is why the exodus from Egyptian bondage has been the clarion call for every oppressed people seeking freedom, from the American Revolution against England to the black struggle against white supremacy in the United States to the cry of the Soviet Jews behind the Iron Curtain, where they cried, “Let us live as Jews or let us leave as Jews.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.