In last week’s Torah portion we read about the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the birth of Moses and his growing up as a prince in the Egyptian court. We also read of his experience at the burning bush, when God commissioned him to lead his people out of slavery. This week’s parasha continues the story of our peoples’ struggle to leave Egypt. God summons Moses to demand of Pharaoh that he free the Israelite slaves so that God can establish a unique relationship: “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” The name for the portion comes from its second verse which reads: “Va-eyra el Avraham el Yitzhak v’el Ya’akov … – I appeared to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob …” God reviews the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “I have heard the cries of the Israelites,” God tells Moses, “and I will now fulfill my promises to them: to redeem them from slavery and to bring them to the land which I promised their ancestors.”
Moses brings God’s message but the Israelites will not listen. Moses appeals to God, telling God that if the Israelites won’t listen to him how could he possibly convince Pharaoh? Moses again protests to God that he has a speech impediment. In response, God reminds Moses that Aaron will be Moses’ spokesperson before Pharaoh. God also tells Moses that even though Moses will speak through many signs and wonders – in addition to words, Pharaoh will still refuse to allow the Israelites to go and worship God in the wilderness. Indeed, God will harden Pharaoh’s heart.
Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh, and cast down Moses’ rod, turning it into a snake. But Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate this wonder (although Moses’ snake did swallow those of Pharaoh’s magicians!) and Pharaoh refused to listen. So the next morning Moses and Aaron went to the banks of the Nile, where they struck the water with the rod. The Nile turned into blood, and all the fish in it died. Again Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate this wonder, and Pharaoh refused to give in. After seven days, God told Moses to threaten Pharaoh with a plague of frogs. When frogs had covered the entire land, Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to ask God to remove them. The frogs died but Pharaoh’s heart remained unmoved. Aaron then held out his arm, striking the dust with his rod, and a swarm of lice overran the land. This time the magicians were unable to reproduce the plague, and they told Pharaoh that, “… this is the finger of God.” Still Pharaoh did not yield. With the fourth plague, swarms of locusts, Pharaoh began to soften and stated that the Israelites may worship God – but only within the borders of Egypt. But as soon as the plague ended, Pharaoh went back on his word. The next day, a plague of cattle disease wiped out the Egyptians’ livestock while that of the Israelites remained healthy. Still Pharaoh refused to free the slaves. Moses and Aaron threw up handfuls of soot which, when it settled, caused painful boils to break out on the skin of the Egyptians and of their remaining animals. (The inflammation was so severe that it struck even the magicians themselves.) Then came a plague of fiery hail throughout the entire country – except in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived. But Pharaoh still refused to relent.
In this second encounter, God reminds Moses and the Israelites who will hear the message that God remembers the covenant and keeps all of God’s promises. God phrased the promise of redemption in five different ways: I will free you (from the burdens of the Egyptians); I will deliver you (from your bondage); I will redeem you (with an outstretched hand); I will take you to be My People; and I will bring you into the land I promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Passover Haggadah, based on discussions from the Talmud, each of the first four phrases is connected to one of the four cups of wine drunk during the Passover seder. But what about the fifth promise? There is some controversy as to whether that promise was fulfilled. The solution put forth by the Talmud was to place a fifth cup on the seder table, but not to bless or drink it. The Talmud instructs that Elijah will one day return and answer all unanswered questions, including whether or not we should drink the fifth cup; thus we call this extra cup the cup of Elijah
The rabbis taught that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to punish him for the cruel bondage he imposed on the Israelites. In response to this teaching, Rabbi Yochanan protested, “This provides a pretext for the unbelievers to say that God did not allow Pharaoh to repent.” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disagreed with Rabbi Yochanan’s conclusion. He observed that Pharaoh was warned prior to five of the plagues. Based on this Rabbi Shimon taught, “When God warns a person on three occasions and he does not turn from his evil ways, God closes the door of repentance on him in order to punish him for his sin. Such was the case with wicked Pharaoh” (Exodus Rabbah 13:3). Rashi pointed out that in response to five of the plagues described in this week’s parasha, the text does not say, “The Eternal hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but rather the text says Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened,” indicating that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by his own stubbornness. Do you think the opportunity for repentance is ever closed to us? Are there acts or behaviors which would absolutely close the door to repentance?
Some Thoughts and Questions
Why was it so difficult for Pharaoh to understand Moses’ words? Why did he need to see “power”? When Moses was told by God to use words first, he was told that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Was that a fair thing to do? Do you think Pharaoh was prepared to listen to words? When you have problems with someone, are you always prepared to listen to their words? How hard or easy is it to use only words? And what about words that don’t hurt? If you could remember to use only words that don’t hurt how would it change the way you act with your brothers and sisters? With your parents or with your friends?
At first, the Israelites welcomed Moses and Aaron, but with their second visit things did not go as well. The slavery of the Israelites had gotten harder because of Moses’ request to let the people worship in the wilderness. Why wouldn’t the Israelites listen to Moses? Moses tells God he is unable to fulfill the task given him because of a speech defect. Can you think of other reasons? (A midrash has God say: “My children are obstinate, bad-tempered, and troublesome. In assuming leadership over them you must expect that they will curse you – even stone you!”) If you were Moses what would you have done? What if you were an Israelite slave? you were an Israelite slave?
Several years ago, Elie Wiesel spoke to then President Reagan concerning Reagan’s planned visit to the Bitberg Cemetery in Germany which included graves of Nazi airmen. Wiesel discouraging Reagan’s visit said, “I must speak Truth to Power.” Moses was speaking truth to power when he spoke with Pharaoh. How do you speak truth to power when it comes to parents? … teachers? … other people in authority? What might be the cost of telling the truth?
In Exodus 12:12, God says, “ … I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt.” Thus, the plagues are symbolic of the defeat of the various gods worshiped by the Egyptians. The frogs (a very ancient Egyptian symbol of fruitfulness) and the insects (symbols of rebirth, particularly the dung-beetle or scarab) became themselves a plague on the land. The sacred bull (the god Apis) and the sacred ram (the god Amon) were devastated by the fifth plague, cattle disease, and finally Ra, the supreme sun god, was defeated by the plague of darkness. Do you think the plagues were only for the Egyptians? What might the Israelites have gained by witnessing these events? How does this account affect your understanding of Jewish history?