Va’Era – Ratifying The Covenant and the First Plagues

Recap and connecting to Parashat Shemot

Va’Era is connected to Shemot in several ways, the most trivial one is the transition between the Parashot.  Va’Era starts with Exodus 6:2, while verse 1 is still in Parashat Shemot.  In Shemot God recognized and took to heart the suffering of the Sons of Israel.  He Knew. This knowledge triggered the renewal of the Covenant that appears in the beginning of Ve’Era.   

The verb ‘Knew’, ‘YADAH’ in Hebrew, appears in Exodus 2:24-25, and then, again in 3:7:

24: God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, Itzḥak and Ya-akov.  25: God saw [looked upon] the Children of Israel [Ya-akov], and God knew and took notice of them [VaYEDAH].

7: The LORD said, “I observed and clearly saw the plight of My People in Egypt. And I heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; I knew their sufferings.”

וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת יַעֲקֹֽב׃

וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃

 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָֽיו׃

I shared some insights regarding the connection between Knowledge and Faith in one of my Conversations with Friends.  These verses tell us what it entails to gain that kind of profound knowledge.  It takes hearing in its deepest and broadest sense, the same that is in the ‘Sh’mah Israel’ sentence.  Retrieving from memory past experiences, history, deeds and commitments is yet another important element.  And lastly – seeing, observing, taking in and understanding the current situation.  The integration of all the above is what it takes to own and get the intimacy of ‘knowing’. 

Ḥizkuni finds significance in the repetition of the name ‘God’ in verse 2:25. “…the expression “God saw”, refers to God seeing what the Egyptians did to the People of Israel publicly.  The second, “God Knew”, refers to God witnessing what they did to Israel where no one saw.  The Pesaḥ Haggadah explains how to understand this.  The first expression refers to the Egyptians making marital relations almost impossible for the Israelites to maintain.  The second expression talks about the suffering these restrictions caused, that no one can witness.  Yet, God goes on record that He is a living witness to all and nothing can be concealed from Him.”

Reading now verse 6:5 in the beginning of Va’Era makes the prefect conclusion of the citing from Shemot.

I heard the moaning of the Children of Israel due to the Egyptians enslaving them, and I remembered My Covenant.

וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת בְּרִיתִֽי׃

The people in their agony are crying out, without addressing the cry to a specific address.  They have been under such a pressure that they cannot even pray, just cry, moan and groan.  The unique point here, is that it emphasizes again the kindness, compassion and mercifulness of HaShem.  God is listening and responding to the cry of anyone that was wronged, whether that one is righteous or not, whether one calls out (prays) specifically to God or not.  This concept is clearly expressed in the Ramban commentary to Exodus 22:26.

The second link between Shemot and Va’Era is the mentioning of the plagues.  In Va’era we witness the execution of the first seven plagues, the rest are due in the next week’s Parashah.  However, in Shemot, the first (Blood) and the last (Death of the Firstborns) plagues are mentioned.  The Blood Plague is mentioned in 4:9:

…the water that you take from the Nile will turn to blood on the dry ground.

וְהָי֤וּ הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּקַּ֣ח מִן הַיְאֹ֔ר וְהָי֥וּ לְדָ֖ם בַּיַּבָּֽשֶׁת

The Plague of the Firstborns is mentioned in 4:22-23:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Israel is My firstborn son.  I told you to let My son go, that he may worship Me.  Yet you refuse to send him away.  Therefore, I will slay your firstborn son.’”

וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֶל פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה בְּנִ֥י בְכֹרִ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃  וָאֹמַ֣ר אֵלֶ֗יךָ שַׁלַּ֤ח אֶת בְּנִי֙ וְיַֽעַבְדֵ֔נִי וַתְּמָאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלְּח֑וֹ הִנֵּה֙ אָנֹכִ֣י הֹרֵ֔ג אֶת בִּנְךָ֖ בְּכֹרֶֽךָ׃

Verse  22 is yet another testimonial to the loving Knowledge of HaShem to us, His People, The People of Israel.  We are, according to this verse, God’s Firstborn son.  This type of relationship, along with the relationship of the Spouse, is repeated so many times in the whole Bible.   

Four Prongs of Redemption Against Four Cups of Wine in the Seder.

[Based on teachings of Rabbi Benjamin Law]

Let us look at chapter 6:6-7:

Therefore, say to the People of Israel: “I am the LORD. I will take you out, 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.  I will take you to be My People, and I will be your God….” 

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃  וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים

From these two verses a whole mountain is erected.  Talmud Yerushalmi (Pessaḥim 68b):  Where from is the requirement to drink four cups coming?  Rabbi Yoḥanan [said] in the name of Rav that Rabbi Banniah said:  ‘Corresponding to the four prongs of salvations (quoting the abovementioned Exodus 6:6-7).  “I will take you out, I will deliver you, and I will redeem you, and I will take you.”‘  

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said suggests another reason for the four cups.   ‘Corresponding to the four cups of Pharaoh (Genesis 40:11-13): “And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand and I squeezed them [the grapes] into the cup of Pharaoh and I placed the cup onto the palm of Pharaoh… and you will place the cup of Pharaoh…”.’

If you think that the conversation stops there, you are in error.  Other Rabbis say that the four cups of wine correspond to four punishments that the Holy One, blessed be He, will pour upon the nations of the world in the future.  And against those four punishments there are also four cups of consolation and comfort.  And I will leave this at that…

A Fifth Prong of Redemption?

There is a fifth action of God, found in the very next verse (6:8):

I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzḥak and Ya-akov, and I will give it to you as your inheritance, I the LORD.”

הֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

“I will bring you to the land…”.  So why the Talmud is talking about only four prongs of redemption? What is the difference between the four actions and the fifth?

The first four are unconditional.  God moves forward with these actions without regard to the actions of Israel.  They need not to pray, need not to follow commandments, do nothing.  According to Ezekiel (20:8-9), God redeems the People almost against their own deeds and will.  The four acts of redemption are more an act of religion, to allow the People to warship God.  The Fifth act in this verse relates to a territory, a long-promised homeland that turns a People into a Nation.  It is conditioned by the People’s reciprocity that we read at the end of verse 7:

 “…You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who takes you out from the sufferings of Egypt.”

וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Here again, the text uses the verb YADAH, with all its subtextual meanings that we have discussed earlier.

The fifth act of redemption is contingent on a choice to be made by the People of Israel.  This choice will make them a real People and a Nation, with land and sovereignty.  Indeed, the establishment of the State of Israel is considered by most of the Jewish World as – ‏ רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְאוּלָתֵנוּ – the beginning of the flowering of our Redemption.

We do have a fifth cup of wine against this act of redemption – the Cup of Eliyahu.  The Sephardic Jews allow, as early as the time of the Babylonian Talmud, to drink it.  Their justification is the presence of Jews in Eretz Yisrael and personally making Aliyah to Israel.  The Ashkenazi Ḥaredi Jews do not drink it, but keep it to Messianic times and the return of Eliyahu.  They think, that despite the establishment of the State of Israel we haven’t yet achieved the fullest knowledge of HaShem.  We haven’t yet accomplished the full extent of “You shall know that I am the LORD your God”.  It will happen in Messianic times, and then we can drink that cup.

The Plagues in a Nutshell.

The plagues detailed in Va’Era are the first seven: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Wild Beasts, Pestilence, Boils and Hail.  The rest are Locust, Darkness and Death of the Firstborns.

The classical question: “did it really happen and how?” that accompanies so many of the biblical stories rises even here.  One of the theories connects the volcanic eruption in the southern Greece island of Santorini (~1600BCE) to the plagues. The Red Algae theory assumes that algae sucked the oxygen from the Nile’s waters triggered the chain of Plagues.  Does it really matter? Can we really explain ALL the phenomena that we witness daily? And if we can’t does it mean that those phenomena do not happen?  Fact is that millions of people relate and reiterate this story yearly for thousands of years.  In my humble opinion, this fact is an adequate testimonial for the historical truth of the story itself.

Ten is quite a magical number in Jewish belief and the Ten Plagues honorably belong to that family.  Other “members” are the ten utterances that God created the universe with (10 times “God Said” in Genesis 1).   The Ten Trials of Avraham is yet another one.  Then there are the Ten Commandments, the Ten Sefirot, and so many more. 

The purpose of the Ten Plagues is clear and appears in a few instances in our Parashat Va’era.  First time is when HaShem instructs Moshe and Aharon about the next steps (Exodus 7:3-6).  Another example is in in the warning to Pharaoh before the Plague of Insects.  They intend to let Pharoah and the Egyptians know the Almighty and remind them of His Power.  And Moshe reiterates it to Pharaoh in the Name of HaShem just before the Plague of Hail (Exodus 9:14-16).  “Nevertheless, I spared you in order to show you My power, and that My Name will spread throughout the world”. 

Lessons Learned from the Plagues

One can not argue an assertion that The Plagues were actually acts of war.  Each one of them is an attack on the People of Egypt.  The way Moshe and Aharon introduce each Plague before implementing it teaches us how to conduct a war.  The brothers come to Pharaoh and ask him: “Let My People Go!”.  Then comes the Or Else, and the description of the Plague that is about to happen.  Pharaoh has a chance to concede and avoid the Plague.  Only when he does not, the Plague happens.  The severity of the Plagues increases, in parallel to Pharaoh’s continued stubbornness.

The lesson here is that before waging an act of war, talk to the enemy.  Try to resolve the conflict, give the opponent a chance to work with you on a non-violent solution.  If all else fails, apply a measured action and let the effects influence the decision makers.  Escalate the severity of the measures you implement only if repeated talks do not resolve the conflict.

Let’s take the Plague of Hail as an example.  Moshe, in the name of HaShem, tells Pharaoh what is going to happen (9:18).  “This time tomorrow I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now.”  Along with it comes a suggestion, a warning (9:19).  Moshe suggests that every living, human being and animals, will go under a shelter, or else they will die.   The hail starts the next day, giving the nation adequate time to bring themselves and their flock to a shelter. 

Indeed, this is exactly the way the IDF is acting during armed conflicts with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations in Gaza.  Before bombing a building, a warning is given in several ways of communications: pamphlets, text messages to cellphones.  Then, a small explosive that does not harm the building is dropped.  Only after all that, the effective ordinance is deployed.  The New York Post article is one of many that describes this approach.  In response to the criticism that one may have to this approach, I have a question.  Do the Russians and the Ukrainians notify each other before an attack on buildings that may have uninvolved in them?

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