Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parasha sees the start of the plagues against Egypt, and how many of those plagues are mentioned in this week’s sedra? ... Just look at the gematria of the first two letters of the parasha… וארא/Vaeira))… ו = 6 and א = 1… and so to this weeks sedra includes the first seven plagues… cute I know!

The sedra starts with Hashem’s final instructions to Moshe with the use of the name ‘elokim’ which implies justice, which of course our redemption and the plagues against Egypt was the epitome of. We also see that G-d speaks harshly to Moshe, comparing him unfavourably to the Patriarchs, who maintained their faith without complaint, even though they were not privileged to see the fulfilment of G-d’s promises to them. Moshe on the other hand argued that he was not suitable for his mission and in last weeks sedra we even saw him complain to Hashem that he had not made his mission successful when he was sent in the early stages and the Jewish people were further afflicted by Pharaoh due to him this… “My lord, why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.” [5:22-23].

Following Hashem’s reassurances to Moshe he states that… ‘I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and have remembered my covenant’, implying both the physical groan of their hardships but also their prayers which cumulatively added to the coming of the redemption. We are then told the four expressions of redemption which of course is why we drink four cups of wine on Pesach… to commemorate, and of course to keep the alcoholics and students amongst us interested. So let’s analyse what is said and what area of redemption this is linked to;

1. והוצאתי- ‘I shall take you out’… G-d would remove the Jews from the burdens of slavery even before they were permitted to leave Egypt, six months before to be precise,

2. והצלתי- ‘I shall rescue you’…G-d would actually physically take the Jews out of Egypt and rescue them from being trapped there,

3. וגאלתי- ‘I shall redeem you’… This alludes to the Splitting of the Sea which was the ultimate act of redemption as the Jews feared that they would be pursued by their former masters and returned to slavery. This act was the final severance from the Egyptians and has been taught by the sages to be five times as great as those they suffered during the Ten Plagues,

4. ולקחתי- ‘I shall take you’… this suggests the ultimate purpose of the Exodus which was for G-d to take us as a nation which climaxed with the giving of the Torah at mount Sinai.

Moshe was therefore given a full view of future events and of what would happen, and with that Hashem gave him his final command to go and talk to Pharaoh… ‘Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt’ [6:13]…according to a Midrash this final commandment comes following seven days of intense communication… so surely now at last we are going to see some action, NOW…?? At last we are going to get the redemption we have been waiting for, no more stalling?? Surely…

Nope! What follows in the Torah seems to be yet another list of genealogies with the Torah listing the family members of Reuven, Shimon and then an even more detailed register of the sons of Levi, leading on to the births of Moshe and Aaron and their wives, aunts, uncles, grannies, children, children’s children, pets… (well maybe not pets but you get the point)… so what happened to the story? Isn’t this slightly off topic to say the least? And why has this been put here stalling our redemption?...

There is a deep concept at play here, and this quick ‘family tree’ break sheds light on a very important point. Moshe is about to undertake the most important role in Jewish history, he is also going to have the highest level of prophecy ever known with direct contact with Hashem 24/7, wherever he is… even better than BBM and with G-d! The Torah has just told us the enormous job he has to undertake but we need this break to stop us getting carried away, by describing his background we are reminded that no matter how special Moshe was he was still human, born from normal families and was simply acting as an agent for Hashem. The Torah therefore takes pains to point this out, contrary to what we have seen with certain other misinformed people today, who really can get carried away. We believe that the founders of the Jewish people were human and not supernatural or born of virgin mothers or the reincarnation of G-d etc… not referring to anyone in particular of course! If this is so, then why do we need the backgrounds of Reuven and Shimon? Surely we only need details on Levi (Moshe’s family) and that would suffice to make this point?... Hidden within this is another concept, although any Jew has the potential to lift himself to the level of greatness and prophecy, G-d does not assign such honour haphazardly. Instead of choosing his emissaries from the eldest tribes, Hashem searched until He found the suitable men for the job… Moshe and Aaron.

The ten plagues consisted of three sets of three plagues which were then followed by the death of the firstborn which would be the one to break Pharaoh’s hardened heart after a long and painful period in Egypt. Each set of three plagues was linked to a particular statement being made by Hashem through them… The first three plagues proved the existence of Hashem; the next set provided evidence that his power extends to earthly affairs and that He influences us directly non-oblivious to material matters; the last set was proof that G-d is unmatched by any power and included the most unexplainable phenomena which had never been seen before. The final plague was the icing on the cake, intended to be the one which would break down Pharaoh’s resistance and bring the redemption from Egypt.

Within Hashem’s final instructions he directs Moshe saying “Speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt…” [6:29]. Appearing here seems to be a small inconsistency with the style of Hashem’s previous and future commandments. In the final line of last week’s sedra Hashem mentions Pharaoh in speech without following it with ‘king of Egypt’ and this is also apparent only one line later with Hashem saying to Moshe… ‘see I have made you a master over Pharaoh…’[7:1] with also no ‘king of Egypt’ described here. So why does Moshe need this description in his final commandment? Surely he knows who Pharaoh is and doesn’t need reminding that he is the king of Egypt (Alzheimer's maybe?)? Rashi sheds light on the extra wording used here stating that it is to remind Moshe, just before he goes off to warn Pharaoh, that even though he is a wicked man and will receive terrible punishment, he is still a king and therefore needs to be spoken to respectfully. Pharaoh was worthy of the punishment he was to receive from the plagues but he was not worthy of being spoken to disrespectfully, how much more so must we be careful about how we speak to our fellow man therefore, who obviously isn’t anywhere near as wicked as Pharaoh was! You could just imagine a modern day example of this, walking into Ahmadinejad’s office and politely sitting down, smiling, shaking his hand… and then tell him that we are going to nuke him, BUT make sure to be polite, calling him sir… would probably be a more fun way of breaking the news anyway!

As the plagues play out in the Torah, we see just how wicked and selfish Pharaoh was. In response to the first plague of Blood, Pharaoh stubbornly ignored Moshe and Aaron, but in the case of Frogs, Pharaoh begs Moshe to remove the plague. In the third plague Pharaoh then seems to return to his disregarding attitude, in fact throughout the plagues we see an inconsistent cocktail of reactions where sometimes he offered to submit to G-d’s will and other times did not. So was there a pattern here, and what was it based on? The Or HaChaim explains that the determining factor in Pharaoh’s responses was not whether or not he believed in G-d but whether or not his life was in danger. He goes through each plague highlighting that when he feared for his life, he offered to relent… otherwise he remained adamant to keep the Jewish people captive. Let’s see this in detail…

1. Blood- The plague was not life threatening because the Egyptians could actually buy water from the Jews or dig new wells in order to find clean water.

2. Frogs- As the Torah describes the frogs were ‘ובכה’which means ‘into you’ and were therefore not just annoyingly croaking around the clock but were also able to creep into the innards of the Egyptians, presumably while they were asleep or caught off guard! And you thought it was just the French! So yes, a threat to life, hence Pharaohs reaction of begging.

3. Lice- Pharaoh did not budge on this plague as it was only uncomfortable and not dangerous.

4. Wild Beasts- Obviously quite dangerous to say the least and this is the first time Pharaoh agrees to all of Moshe’s demands. 5. Epidemic- Only animals died, not people so Pharaoh must have turned vegan for the week and didn’t see it as life threatening.

6. Boils- Once again this caused extreme discomfort but not death. 7. Hail- Big flaming balls of hail, extremely loud thunder, and flames from heaven… he gave in on this one, thinking that they were going to experience the same destruction as Sodom had.

8. Locusts- Pharaoh specifically said ‘remove this death from me’; following this plague which caused widespread and severe famine. 9. Darkness- During the first few days of the plague, the Egyptians could have used lanterns; thereafter they could not move. We therefore don’t see Pharaoh ask Moshe to end the plague but as soon as it ended, he offered to let the people go, but attached an unacceptable condition.

10. Death of the Firstborn- Pharaoh’s resistance broke down completely, for he was a firstborn!

We therefore see that although Pharaohs responses seem random, he was in fact just concerned about his own wellbeing all along. There is so much detail hidden in the plagues which I, bezrat Hashem, will go into depth on over Pesach when I can focus more on just them.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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