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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAERA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 5, 2008 – 27 Tevet 5768

Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 6:2 - 7:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 370 Hertz p. 244)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God reminds Moses of the covenant God made with the patriarchs, and says that the time has come for God to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Even so, Moses resists the charge God gives him to go to Pharaoh, saying “the Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” Still, God instructs Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh and deliver the Israelites from Egypt. The Torah then recounts the genealogy of the tribe of Levi.

God tells Moses, who again protests that he has a speech impediment, that Aaron will serve as his spokesman. God also tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and that Egypt will be punished severely before God finally brings the Israelites out.

Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh, demonstrating the sign God had given them. When Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate this sign, turning their own rods into serpents, Pharaoh dismisses Moses and Aaron. Now the plagues begin – blood, frogs, lice, and more. As each plague afflicts Egypt, Pharaoh appears to relent, but once the plague has stopped, he reneges on his promise to allow the Israelites to go.

After the seventh plague of hail, Pharaoh appears to be beaten. He says to Moses and Aaron, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong... I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” But yet again, once the hail stops Pharaoh refuses to let the people go.

You Can Take the Slave Out of Egypt...

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord. But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:6-9)

  1. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Israel left Egypt, there were among them men crippled by heavy labor, for as they worked in clay and bricks, now and then a stone, dropping from the structure, would break a man’s arm or sever his leg. Hence the Holy One said: It is not right that I give My Torah to cripples. What did He do? He beckoned to the ministering angels, and they came down and healed them. (Tanhuma [a Midrash collection] Yitro 8)
  2. Sivlot Mitzrayim – the labors [burdens] of the Egyptians – can be understood as tolerance. Even though the work was hard and oppressive, still they became accustomed to hardships and they bore the yoke and distress with patience (savlanut) and they saw their condition as natural. The Holy Blessed One said, Since they already do not experience their state as bitter, there is great danger and their redemption cannot be delayed any longer. (Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, 1765-1827, Poland)
  3. Why does the Torah first mention I will free you [take you out] from the labors, i.e. that God would take the Israelites out of Egypt, before and deliver you from their bondage? After all, their bondage ended before they were brought out of Egypt. The answer is that only after I will free you [take you out] from the labors, after the Jews left Egypt would they be able to appreciate how bitter it had been. Only then would they truly understand and deliver you from their bondage. (Tiferet Uzziel [Rabbi Uzziel ben Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, 1743-1785, Poland])

Sparks for Discussion

The Egyptian slavery had devastating physical effects on the Israelites. But that was not all – slavery also had emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, God had the angels heal the physical injuries, but what about the rest? Did the freed slaves ever recover from the mental and spiritual injuries? Why do you think that?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that physical bondage was not the greatest danger the Israelites faced. Do you agree that people can come to accept the intolerable as natural? Can you think of examples? How do we learn to stop shrugging off oppression and injustice – whether we or other are the victims – because “that’s just the way it is”?

The Point of No Return

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3)

  1. The first five plagues are accompanied by the passive formulation: “Then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” because after they came upon him he refused to let the people go. Accordingly, the Holy Blessed One said: “Henceforth, even if he should want now to let them go, I shall not let him.” For this reason, the text adds in the last five plagues “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Tanhuma Vaera 3)
  2. For I have hardened his heart (Exodus 10:1) Said Rabbi Yohanan: This provides an opening for the heretics to say: He (Pharaoh) was not allowed by God to repent. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish replied: Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up. ... When God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time and he still does not repent, then God closes his heart against repentance so that God should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your impurity.’ (Shemot Rabbah 13:3)
  3. God desires the repentance of the wicked and not their death.... Without a doubt, were it not for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart he would have sent forth Israel, not because of repentance or submission to God, the Blessed One, [nor because] he regretted his rebellion, recognizing God’s greatness and goodness – but because he could no longer abide the anguish of the plagues. . . . Now this would not have been repentance. However, if Pharaoh would have truly wished to submit to God and return to Him in full repentance, there would have been no Divine deterrent at all. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. Ben Azzai taught: Pursue even a minor mitzvah and flee from a transgression, for one mitzvah draws another in its train and one transgression draws another in its train. Thus, the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the penalty for a transgression is another transgression. (Pirkei Avot 4:2)
  5. Rav Huna said: When a man has committed a sin once and a second time, it appears to him as if it were permitted. (Yoma 86b)

Sparks for Discussion

If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he repeatedly refused to let the Israelites go, why were he and all Egypt punished so terribly? How could Pharaoh be held responsible if his free will had been removed? All the commentators follow the Tanhuma – it was only after Pharaoh hardened his own heart over and over again that God stepped in. Pharaoh freely chose toresist Moses’ (and God’s) demand that he let the Israelites go five times before God hardened his heart.

Some, like Resh Lakish, say this was so that Pharaoh would be properly punished for his evil acts. Others, like Sforno, say it was so that Pharaoh would achieve and act from true repentance. Do you think that these explanations solve the problem?

Rav Huna takes a different tack – a person who sins repeatedly becomes accustomed to it – it’s human nature, the way God made us. It is an article of Jewish faith that as long as a person lives he or she can do teshuva – repent – and turn away from sinning. Do you believe that this is true in the “real world”? Is change always possible, or does a person ever become a lost cause? How do our past actions shape and constrain our choices in the present?


 
 
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