Rabbi Danny Rich
Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35) takes its name from the first word of its second verse when God declares: ‘Va’era: I appeared’, revealing to Moses the essential nature of the Divine Name and its relation to the promise made to the ancestors of the Israelites.
Moses is informed by God that the destiny of the Israelite people is the settlement of the Promised Land in accord with the covenant between God and Abraham and that Moses is the messenger through whom this will be fulfilled. The time for the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery has arrived and Moses is to request that freedom from Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt.
Moses prevaricates, protesting that as the Israelites have not listened to him previously how much the more so the pagan ruler of Egypt but, in any case, Moses himself has a speech impediment. God’s response is the appointment of Moses’ own brother, Aaron, and henceforth Pharaoh will face the sibling spokespersons.
The narrative continues with the central theme of the parashah: the requests to free the Israelites, Pharaoh’s refusal to do so and the response of the Hebrew God – the plagues.
Parashat Va’era details the first seven plagues: the reddening of the waters of the River Nile, the appearance of large numbers of frogs, a devastating infestation of insects (perhaps lice or mosquitoes), a swarm of locusts or stable fly, a widespread cattle disease, a virulent human infection and, finally for this parashah at least, a catastrophic hailstorm.
Before and in-between the plagues Moses and Aaron have become regular supplicants at the court of the Pharaoh. Their first audience was in last week’s parashah (5:1) where a request to worship in the desert was met with a peremptory refusal and increased levels of oppression. In this week’s parashah Moses and Aaron appear a number of times before Pharaoh, either on God’s instructions or at the Pharaoh’s invitation. The ‘rules’ of the game are repetitive: Aaron threatens a plague which occurs; Pharaoh promises release if the plagues recedes; and the plague abates but Pharaoh changes his mind.
The story of the plagues, particularly the ‘hardening’ of Pharaoh’s heart, challenges – and continues to disturb – the concept of a God who operates according to the laws of nature, has universal concern for humanity and makes moral, ethical choices.
It is, of course, not necessary to assume that either the plagues or indeed the Exodus itself happened to gain value from the story. Nevertheless, there have been numerous fascinating attempts to explain the plagues not as miraculous but as not unusual natural phenomena. It is possible that heavy rainfall in the highlands of Ethiopia might wash down into rivers including the Nile excessive amounts of red soil, upsetting the oxygen levels in the water and causing fish to die. The putrefying fish might have forced the frogs onto land, encouraging swarms of different types of insects which brought with them infection leading to boils, disease and even widespread premature death. Dramatic atmospheric occurrences including severe hail squalls and darkening sand storms were equally not unknown in the region.
Be all of this as it may, it is the suffering of innocent Egyptians which is more difficult for the liberal palate. Indeed whilst the Book of Proverbs (24:17) rebukes, ‘Do not rejoice when your enemy falls’, the discomfort is best captured by the well-known anonymous midrash (commenting on the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Reed Sea) which appears twice in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b):
At that time the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of praise before the Holy One but God rebuked them saying: My creatures are drowning in the sea and you would sing before Me!
Discussion of the plagues – and indeed this rabbinic discomfort- brings us to seder night and the Haggadah. Many of you will recall the recitation of the plagues and the spilling of drops of juice or wine to recall the loss of sweetness as others suffered. This was not a custom of my childhood, however, since I was brought up with the first Haggadah of the then Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (the preliminary draft of which was prepared by my late father, John Rich who was, I believe responsible for the insertion of the midrash reproduced above) which had no reference to the plagues except in the notes. The absence of both the plagues and this midrash is equally true of the first Haggadah of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue which was included in its volume of Services and Prayers for Jewish Homes and was published in 1918. The current Liberal Judaism Haggadah gives prominence to the plagues in picture, Hebrew, transliteration and English, mentions the custom of spilling drops of wine and repeats the midrash in a series of texts telling the story of the Exodus.
Whether the plagues, the Exodus or any other part of the Torah happened is not really the question. The weekly Torah reading remains for me a source of inspiration and refreshment, and reaffirms my commitment to the remarkable Jewish people of which its early literature is just one of Judaism’s contributions to humanity.
In a moment of our own history when we face individual and collective challenges, the cycle of Torah calls upon us to look beyond the immediate to a future and an essence which may have appeared, may be appearing and may yet appear.
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