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Parashat Va’era

January 13, 2010

By Sanford Olshansky

This parashah forces us to ask ourselves whether we believe in a God who acts in history – a God who even if not very hands-on today, must have been very hands-on at one time. The Genesis tales about the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs could be taken as allegories. Even the Exodus stories about Moses’ birth and rescue and God’s first revelation to Moses at the burning bush are taken by many people as allegories.

In this week’s parashah, Va-era, God responds to Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go by sending a series of plagues. We all know the sequence from reciting it at the Passover Seder: blood, frogs, vermin, insects, pestilence, boils and hail. (The locusts, darkness and slaying of the firstborn Egyptians come next week in Parashat Bo.) After each plague, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he refuses to let the Israelites go. The plagues described in the Torah are so dramatic and so damaging that we have to ask: Could this really have happened? Did God do it and, if so, what was the purpose?

In the beginning of the parashah, God tells Moses: Veyidatem ki ani Adonai eloheikhem hamotzi etkhem mitahat sivlot mitsrayim. “And you will know that I am Adonai your God who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (Exodus 6:7). The Israelites are to learn, as the Conservative humash Etz Hayim says, that they were not liberated by the generosity of Pharaoh. Rather they will know that they were redeemed by God, who acts in history, is all-powerful and has a special relationship with them. The Egyptians and the other nations will also learn this: God has Moses tell Pharaoh he’emadtikha ba’avur har’otkha et kokhi… “I have spared you in order to show you my power, so you will tell my name in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Later books of the Bible say that the Moabites and Canaanites heard of these wonders and were afraid of Israel’s God. Perhaps the purpose was to protect the Israelites, to make other nations fear them and leave them alone. The Bible says this worked until the Israelites sinned against God.

A Discovery Channel program once tried to explain how each of the plagues could have occurred naturally. Were its creators trying to make it more or less necessary to believe in God? Even Etz Hayim gives natural explanations for the plagues, but itand many other sources also say that the purpose was to coerce, educate and punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites. It says the Exodus was meant to teach that it is unacceptable for one human being to enslave another – that freedom is the will of God.

Were so many plagues necessary? Why does God keep hardening Pharaoh’s heart?

Robert Alter, a modern, secular Bible scholar says that without Pharaoh’s resistance, God would not have had the opportunity to demonstrate supreme power, in contrast with the powerlessness of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Many commentators point out that after each of the first five plagues the Bible says Pharaoh’s heart was hardened – he chose to be stubborn. After each of the next five plagues it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Psychologist Erich Fromm says that at first Pharaoh was free to be generous or stubborn, but each time he chose stubbornness, it became more likely that he would be stubborn again.[1] Rabbi J. H. Hertz, z”l, said that God, who is all knowing, knew where Pharaoh’s stubbornness would lead.[2] This reminds me of Rabbi Akiva’s enigmatic teaching in Mishnah Avot 3:19 that “All is foreseen yet free will is given.”

Were there plagues and an Exodus? There is little archeological evidence, but I don’t think that matters. Even Alter says it’s unlikely that the ancient Israelites “would have invented a story of national origins involving the humiliation of slavery without some kernel of historical memory.”[3] As Etz Hayim points out, we reaffirm this core Jewish belief every Shabbat when we chant the Kiddush, in which we acknowledge God as our liberator in the Exodus from Egypt. This national memory of slavery and redemption is the basis of our feeling that we have a special relationship with God, which I believe is reinforced by the miracle of Jewish survival. It supports the obligation we feel as Jews to imitate God by caring for the stranger and the oppressed, as the Torah commands.


Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at AJR and serves as rabbinical intern and acting Hebrew School director at Temple Beth Rishon, in Wyckoff, NJ.


[1] Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 2 (New York, 1991), pp. 22-23

[2] J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London, 1961), p. 220

[3] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 2004), pp. 340-341