Photo Credit: The Hebrew Identity
  • Parshat Va’eira shows Moshe embracing his identity and role as Israel’s leader while the Egyptian kingdom suffers mass devastation.
  • How was the Egyptian ideology blocking humanity from receiving a prophetic message?
  • Why was it necessary for Egypt to be hit with ten plagues instead of one?
  • What is the origin story of the eruv rav?

Parshat Va’eira focuses on the Creator’s revelation to humanity, which ultimately came about through the plagues brought against Egypt. The word Va’eira itself is taken from a statement the Creator made to Moshe and means “I appeared,” emphasizing how He’s perceived by the world.

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The parsha begins with the Creator elaborating on His response to Moshe at the end of Parshat Sh’mot, when Moshe expressed concern that his initial efforts to convince Pharaoh to free the children of Israel not only failed but even led to increased hardships for the Hebrew slaves.

In Sh’mot 6, verse 2, we see Elokim – a name connoting the Divine attribute of judgement that’s often translated into English as “God” – introduce Himself to Moshe as the Shem Havaya, the Name spelled Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei, which we generally substitute by saying HaShem. It’s a Name that’s generally used when expressing the Creator’s attribute of Divine mercy.

This was already an answer to Moshe’s concern, highlighting how Creation is designed in such a way that often necessitates initial severity in order for mercy to be properly realized. The message to Moshe here was that the recent intensification of Israel’s oppression was actually necessary for accelerating Hebrew liberation.

In verse 3, HaShem further told Moshe that “Va’eira – I appeared – to Avraham, to Yitzḥak and to Yaakov as El Shadai, but with My Name HaShem I did not make Myself known to them.”

The patriarchs certainly knew the Name HaShem but didn’t “know” it the sense of actually experiencing it, because the prophecy they received from the Creator remained only a promise in their lifetimes. Truly experiencing HaShem requires the fulfillment of prophetic promise.

After this dialogue, the Torah’s narrative is suddenly interrupted with a detailed presentation of Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. While Parshat Sh’mot expresses the suppression of individual identity under Egypt by for the most part not providing personal names, Parshat Va’eira offers many names, indicating that self-awareness was increasing as the process of the Exodus began.

Sh’mot 6, verses 14 and 15 begin the genealogical record with the tribes of Reuven and Shimon to show that the tribe of Levi’s value is greatest when appraised within the context of the broader nation of Israel. One reason for these verses being placed here specifically might be that by establishing Moshe’s place within the nation, they show us that his identification and connection with his people was growing stronger. In our last episode, we saw how Moshe’s disappointment with Israel led to a plan to start a new Hebrew nation in Midian that would replace the Israeli slaves in advancing the mission of Avraham.

So long as Moshe wasn’t able to recognize his own place within the tribes of Israel, he couldn’t lead the people out of Egypt. From this perspective, the purpose of the Torah detailing Moshe’s lineage here should be understood as informing us that this lineage was now becoming more central to Moshe’s own self-identification.

The Torah portion of Va’eira serves to essentially teach us the difference between the Creator’s appearance to Israel’s patriarchs and His appearance to the world at large through Egypt’s collapse. But appreciating what this means requires us to understand the Egyptian ideology and how its oppressive shadow had conditioned humanity to reject any notions of ethical or moral progress.

Ancient Egyptian philosophy understood life as fixed and recurrent cycles of materialism determined by the immutable laws of nature that all human endeavors must serve.

Egypt’s gods were the sun, the Nile and the animals. The sun created the cycle of the year. The Nile provided water and was the source of life. The animals represented the basic fundamental life forces. This perspective formed the very basis of ancient Egyptian civilization.

The real destructive impact of this idolatrous worldview was that it related to human beings as nothing more than products of nature.

Trapped in the matrix of natural law, man was seen as having no choice but to go with the inexorable flow of reality. Although acknowledging that human beings possessed the ability to make decisions, the Egyptian worldview claimed that these decision weren’t actually any different than those of an animal.

Human psychology – our desires, motivations and weaknesses – was understood as a product of nature.

Negative emotions like anger, jealousy, lust and the will to dominate others were understood to be natural features of existence, prompting man to live no different from the animal predators that devour their weaker competitors. The world was understood to reach a natural ecology of forces in conflict, balanced between the strong and the weak. Between the masters and the slaves.

This suffocating ideological paradigm imprisoned the human spirit in an absolute bondage to the fetters of nature, with no possibility of breaking free and transcending its restrictive boundaries.

Ancient Egypt is referred to as the “house of bondage” not only because of its large slave population. Egypt was a “house of bondage” through and through. All were mentally enslaved to the fixed laws of nature that determined everyone’s fate.

We learn in the Pesaḥ Haggadah that “had the Kadosh Barukh Hu not taken Israel out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh.”

While we can assume that over the course of thousands of years, other geopolitical factors might have led to Israel’s freedom, this is actually not the point our Sages are making here.

Had HaShem not taken us out then, we would have remained slaves in our essence. Human civilization would have remained stagnant, sunk in the mire of Egypt’s slave mentality. Even had Egypt’s dominance on the world stage later declined, the Egyptian ideology would have continued to dominate the thinking of man.

According to Rav Kook, Israel’s Exodus marked “the springtime of the entire world” because out of the darkness of Egypt burst forth the Light of HaShem. Through the collapse of Egypt and Israel’s national birth, humanity would discover that it’s actually possible to establish a strong and prosperous civilization founded on eternal values of morality, justice and Divine good.

Through Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the world saw that there was Divine value to history, a Guiding Hand ruling over the forces of the universe, and that it was in our power to rise up and transcend our baser instincts and passions.

This revelation, which would bring about a revolution in human thinking, required a series of ten educational plagues divided into three groups.

These plagues were also designed to help Israel realize our true identity and accept our role as the nation uniquely created to bring the universal awareness of HaShem to humankind.

The fact that there were ten plagues and not merely one fatal plague shows us that the objective wasn’t merely to free the Hebrew slaves but also to reeducate both Israel and humanity. The ten plagues served as a very deliberate step-by-step educational process.

The Midrash teaches that one of the objectives of these plagues was to liberate Israel from our worship of Egyptian gods. The Hebrew slaves of that generation were deeply entrenched in Egyptian culture. In fact, Israel’s connection with Egypt was so strong at that point that liberation couldn’t be achieved with simply one fatal blow. All ten plagues were necessary for their gradual yet cumulative effect. For Israel to fully break with Egypt, we needed to first be convinced of the failure of the Egyptian system.

The first three plagues – blood, frogs and lice – were aimed at destabilizing the Egyptian kingdom and undermining the authority of its magicians, who at this point were functioning as Pharaoh’s spiritual representatives.

These plagues were therefore executed through Aharon wielding the staff, which was familiar to the Egyptian people within the framework of how they understood magic. Aharon appeared to function as Moshe’s representative.

These first three plagues were also designed in such a way that the Egyptian magicians would be able to duplicate the first two but not the third and would ultimately admit defeat. Humiliating the magicians was an important first step in dismantling the Egyptian ideology. And by starting with relatively mild plagues that could be duplicated by Egyptian magic, the Creator was essentially baiting the magicians into a competition that they ultimately couldn’t win.

The first three plagues were also for the purpose of responding to Pharaoh’s statement in Sh’mot 5, verse 2, that he didn’t know HaShem. These plagues served as an introduction and were kept relatively mild in order to allow the Egyptians to maintain their free will. Because the Egyptians had deified nature and most specifically the Nile river, which was seen as the kingdom’s primary life source, the plagues began at the Nile in order to challenge the very foundations of the Egyptian ideology.

The magicians were able to duplicate the plagues of blood and frogs but not lice. In Sh’mot 8, verse 15, we see that they admitted to Pharaoh that the plague was the “finger of Elokim” and that they couldn’t reproduce it through their magic. But Pharaoh’s heart was strong and he didn’t heed their words. The fact that the Egyptian monarch was no longer paying attention to the advice of his magicians was in and of itself a blow to the kingdom’s ideology and value system.

The second set of plagues – wild beasts, pestilence and boils – had two major educational objectives. The first was to teach Egypt – and through them all of humanity – that HaShem was not only the Creator of the world but also intimately involved in every level of its events.

The second objective was to clearly set Israel apart from Egypt. Manitou teaches that until this point, the Hebrew slaves had grown accustomed to seeing themselves as part of Egyptian society. Now they and the Egyptians and ultimately the rest of humanity would need to recognize that Israel was not merely an ethnic minority within Egypt but actually a completely separate nation. This distinction needed to be acknowledged by both Israel and the Egyptians.

In Sh’mot 8, verse 19, we see HaShem state that “I will make a distinction between My people and your people.”

When it comes to the fifth plague, the epidemic that killed most of Egypt’s livestock, we see in Sh’mot 9, verse 4 that “HaShem will distinguish between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and not a thing that belongs to the children of Israel will die.” And verse 6 confirms that this is exactly what took place.

Since Israel was at this point scattered throughout Egypt and not only in Goshen, the distinction of the plagues effecting Egyptians but not Hebrews had to occur throughout the country, which obviously made a bigger impression than the epidemic merely not spreading to Goshen.

Manitou also teaches that the primary purpose of the plagues was neither to punish Egypt nor to liberate Israel from enslavement, but rather to reeducate Egypt and ultimately all of humanity. Once this reeducation took place, the world would become more capable of understanding and accepting the Divine message Israel would share from Jerusalem once we could establish our own civilization in our own land.

A theme we see throughout the period of the plagues, which we are taught to have lasted for roughly a year, is the stubbornness of Egypt’s ruler in the face of his kingdom being torn apart.

Sh’mot 8, verse 28 tells us that Pharaoh had made his heart stubborn. Then chapter 9, verse 7 states that his heart remained stubborn. And then verse 12 tells us that HaShem strengthened Pharaoh’s heart.

During the earlier plagues, Pharaoh had had enough self-control to suppress his fears and emotions in order to remain strong in the face of the plagues. But once his strength began to wane, HaShem infused him with an inner strength that allowed him to resist not only the pressures of the plagues but also the pleas of his advisors and the suffering of the Egyptian people.

This should be seen as similar to how HaShem often grants inner strength to Israel during wars or other difficult situations. The strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart didn’t deprive him of his freedom of choice but actually allowed him to overcome his own fears and emotions in order to act freely according to his own will and his own rational understanding of Egypt’s national interests.

While the first set of plagues was meant to introduce HaShem and begin the destruction of the Egyptian ideology and the second set was meant to demonstrate HaShem’s involvement in every sphere of reality and separate between Israel and the Egyptian population, the third set of plagues was meant to show that HaShem is all powerful. Not simply that He is more powerful than the forces the Egyptians were accustomed to worshiping but that He is all powerful and that all other forces are completely subordinate to Him.

In order that the Egyptian ideology be shattered, it was necessary for the Egyptians to directly experience HaShem’s power and be offered a choice between obeying Pharaoh or Moshe.

Sh’mot 9, verse 14 states that “‘For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart and upon your servants, and your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world.’”

The plague of hail is described here as “all My plagues” because it began the collapse of the idolatrous Egyptian worldview. This reinforces the notion that the plagues were primarily about the world’s reeducation through Egypt.

Sh’mot 9, verses 20 and 21 show us that “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of HaShem chased his servants and his livestock into the houses. And whoever did not take the word of HaShem to heart – he left his servants and livestock in the field.”

Each time Moshe had confronted Pharaoh before a plague, he would repeat HaShem’s demand that Israel be set free to serve Him. This was largely for the benefit of Pharaoh’s ministers, who would then repeat the demand to the public.

The plague of hail was the first time the people of Egypt were granted an opportunity to spare themselves. Those who made the choice to heed Moshe’s warning were also making a conscious decision to acknowledge HaShem and side with Israel. These individuals were able to gain protection from the plague through abandoning their faith in false gods, rejecting the Egyptian ideology and recognizing HaShem’s all-encompassing sovereignty.

The plague of hail therefore led to a split in Egyptian society as a growing sector began to openly show support for Moshe and for his struggle for Israel’s freedom.

The plague of hail was also unique in that it showed fire and ice cooperating at HaShem’s command, demonstrating His absolute control over nature. Sh’mot 9, verse 24 shows us that fire and water were actually united within the hailstones, directly violating the laws of nature that Egyptian civilization had until then understood as immutable.

This led to many Egyptians being in awe of HaShem and embracing Moshe’s teachings. Many of these people, despite having no real connection to the patriarchs or affinity for the promised land, would later join Israel in departing the land of Egypt and would become known in our people’s history as the eruv rav.

[Originally published at Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.
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