Parshat Vaera

“And G-d said to Moshe, ‘Tell Aharon your brother ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over the rivers, the pools, the lakes and over all the bodies of water’ and they will become blood.” (Exodus 7; 19). Surely this is an impossible command. How could G-d instruct a person to stretch out their hand over all the water in the land? Furthermore, since G-d is clearly the One performing the miracle, what purpose is there in Aharon or Moshe waving their hands about as if they are some sort of magicians? Doesn’t this trivialise the effect of G-d controlling the forces of nature? Yet we find that G-d instructs them to perform actions in order to bring about many of the plagues.

Both of these questions can also be asked about the miracle of the splitting of the sea. With the pursuing Egyptian army behind them, and the impenetrability of the Sea of Reeds1 in front of them, Moshe prays to G-d for help. G-d’s response seems absurd; “G-d said to Moshe, ‘Why are you shouting at Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go forward’” (ibid. 14; 15). The Midrash tells us that the sea didn’t part until Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Yehuda, jumped in and started to cross. As soon as he was up to his neck in water, the whole sea divided and the Jews were able to cross on dry land. Why does G-d demand of the Children of Israel to attempt the impossible, and why does He require human input, when He is about to perform one of the greatest miracles?

The mystical sources tell us that our world is just one of many. Ours is the most physical, but parallel to it, and bound to it, are intangible spiritual worlds; each world less physical and more ethereal then the one below it, ultimately reaching to the foot of G-d’s Throne of Glory. These worlds are the conduit for G-d’s interaction with us, diluting the awesome light and power of G-d, so that we are able to perceive it in our world. Without these worlds to gradually translate ethereal spirituality into our physical world, the natural desire to draw close to G-d’s Presence would overpower us, and our spiritual souls would be unable to remain in their physical bodies. This is the meaning of the verse “For no man can perceive Me and live”. All the laws of nature which were set up in creation are channelled through these worlds.

This is not purely a one way system. Our world is called by the Kabbalists “Olam HaAsiya”, the world of action. Because human beings were given free choice, we have the ability to decide upon our actions, and these actions are translated upwards to the highest worlds. Therefore, G-d promises us “If you will carefully obey My commandments... to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will provide rain in your land in its proper time...”. G-d is not offering us physical gifts as a reward for obedience, but is teaching us the spiritual laws of nature and the direct consequences of our actions. What we do influences the spiritual worlds, which in turn affect our world.

However, because this is the “Olam HaAsiya”, it is our physical actions which have a direct and far reaching effect. Whilst our thoughts and speech are important, it is with our actions that we alter the spiritual channels and can influence the laws of nature. That is why G-d commands Moshe and Aharon to perform actions to bring about the miracles. Even though it is impossible to reach out over every stretch of water in the physical world, the attempt unleashes spiritual conduits which change the normal physical rules. Similarly at the Reed Sea, everything was in place for it to split, but opening those channels required someone prepared to demonstrate their faith and start swimming.

No one should ever say “Who am I?”, or “What difference do my actions make?”. Every detail of every action that we perform is translated through the spiritual worlds into laws of nature. We are usually unable to see the results directly, but who knows the consequences of lighting Shabbat candles, or of spending Shabbat morning in Synagogue? Putting on tefillin, giving charity, or offering hospitality could affect the health, livelihood or Jewish awareness of ourselves, our loved ones, and ultimately the whole world.

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This week’s Torah reading contains the four expressions of redemption, “I am the L-rd, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements, and I will take you to Me for a people...” (Exodus 6; 6-7). The Midrash states that these four expressions also correspond to the four decrees of Pharaoh which caused the Jews to cry out to G-d, and to be saved.

The Ba’al HaTurim finds another quartet to which these four expressions correspond. He explains that the four expressions of redemption correspond to the four nations who would exile and enslave the Jews in the future.

How do these “fours” relate to each other? Pharaoh’s first decree was to subject the Jews to slave labour. Therefore the first phrase of redemption is “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,” specifying that G-d will end the slavery and the harsh labour. One of the main purposes of the slavery was to prevent the Israelite people from retaining faith in G-d. Because they were forced to work so hard they had no time left to contemplate religion and the promises that G-d had made to the forefathers. This corresponds to the first exile, to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. At that time the greatest threat to the Jewish people was idolatry. The Babylonians were steeped in a culture of idol worship, and Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of himself to which all his subjects were forced to prostrate themselves. The Jews were later punished for bowing to this idol. The phrase “v’Hotzeti”, “And I will bring you out” reminds us of G-d’s promise to Avraham at the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d “brought Avraham outside” (Genesis 15; 5). The Midrash explains that at this moment G-d brought Avraham outside the influence of the constellations and astrology, and established a direct relationship between Himself and Avraham’s descendants. From this time forth there was no need for any idols or other intermediaries between the Jews and G-d. So too in Egypt, G-d promises to bring them out, to remove the Jews from the idolatry which they will be surrounded with in Babylon, and to redeem them from that.

The second expression of redemption, “I will deliver you from their bondage” corresponds to Pharaoh’s second decree to throw all the new-born males into the Nile. This parallels the second exile, of Persia and Medea, which culminated in Haman’s decree to wipe out all the Jewish people. During this exile the Jews were faced with physical destruction, just as Pharaoh’s aim was to physically destroy the nation by killing all the males. The word “v’Hitzalti”, “deliver” or “save” implies G-d’s saving from the threat of extermination.

The third expression of redemption, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” is G-d’s response to Pharaoh’s third decree. Pharaoh became ill with leprosy, and tried to cure himself by bathing in the blood of Jewish babies. The Hagaddah says: “Outstretched arm” this refers to the sword, as it says (I Chronicles 21; 16) “His sword in his hand, outstretched over Jerusalem.”. The simple explanation is that this refers to the slaying of the first born, which the angel of death performed with a sword. Just as Pharaoh had Jewish babies slain so that he could bathe in their blood, so he was repaid in kind when all the firstborn in Egypt were slain.

The third exile was that of the Greeks, which was unique in that it was the only exile where the Jews actually remained in the land of Israel. We do not normally think of the Greeks, the most “cultured” nation of the ancient world as being bloodthirsty murderers. However the mystical sources indicate that metaphorically they did just that. Blood is likened to the soul, as the Torah says “For the blood is the soul” (Deuteronomy 12; 23). Therefore removing a person’s spirituality is likened to shedding blood. The Greeks didn’t enslave the Jews or oppress them physically, rather they banned the study of Torah and other Jewish practices, forcing them to renounce their religion. Thus the Greeks are considered murderers in their attempt to remove the inner essence of the Jewish nation. The word “Ga’alti”, “redeem,” implies taking one nation out from the midst of another. Just as both Pharaoh on a physical level, and the Greeks on a spiritual level attempted to remove the inner essence of the Jews, so too G-d responds by removing the Jews from inside another nation.

The final decree of Pharaoh was instructing his taskmasters to stop supplying the Israelites with straw with which to make bricks. The real hardship of this decree was that it forced the Jews to spread throughout Egypt to search for straw, and thus prevented the Jews from being united. G-d responded to this decree with “I will take you to Me for a people”, G-d will externally impose unity upon the Jewish people, by being their G-d. The other three expressions of redemption all specify saving from oppression. However this final stage of redemption comes after all the external pressures have been removed, and is G-d bringing the Jews to Him, not away from something else.

The fourth and final nation to exile the Jews was Edom. They destroyed the Second Temple, and scattered the Jews throughout the world. Our Sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of the sin of causeless hatred between the Jews, a lack of unity. Therefore the exile was one which dispersed the Jews and aggravated that disunity. And the redemption from that exile must be a bringing together of all the Jews, uniting them in the purpose of being the nation of G-d.

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“G-d said to Moshe… ‘Speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart...” (Exodus 7; 2-3). These verses raise two obvious questions - what does it mean when G-d hardens a persons heart? How does that accord with our understanding of free choice? Furthermore, if G-d has stated that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, what point is there in sending Moshe and Aharon to speak to him? This seems like mockery, asking Pharaoh to do something which has become impossible for him to do.

The Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuva 5; 1 ff.): Each person has the opportunity to turn themselves towards the good path and be righteous, or to choose to follow the path of evil, and become wicked. This the meaning of the verse “Behold mankind is like one of us to know good and evil” (Genesis 3; 22). This means that human beings are unique in the world in that through their own intellect they know the difference between good and evil, and do whichever they desire, without anyone (or anything) preventing them. This principle is a foundation of the Torah and commandments for if G-d would decree that a person would be righteous or wicked, or if there were something forcing a person to a certain path, how could G-d command us to act in a certain way, or how could the prophets chastise us and instruct us to improve our actions?

However, it is possible that a person could sin so grievously, or so often, that strict justice dictates that they must be punished for this, and therefore have their free choice removed so that they are prevented from repentance. Therefore the Torah writes “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7; 3). Since he sinned initially of his own choice, and acted evilly against Israel who were living in his land, justice therefore dictates that he eventually lose the option of repentance. Why then did G-d send Moshe to him to tell him to send the Jews from his land and repent, if that option was already removed from him? If a person should do something of their own free will, G-d may remove from them the ability to repent and they must die in their wickedness.

We have a principle that G-d helps a person to follow the path that they chose. Pharaoh chose to be stubborn and obstinate, therefore G-d caused him to take his path to its conclusion. His decisions to oppress and kill the Jews, and then refuse to listen to Moshe and Aaron, caused G-d to take him to a point where the gates of repentance were sealed before him.

Pharaoh was not the only one to exhibit this trait of stubbornness. G-d accuses the Jewish nation of being ‘a stiff-necked people’ at the time of the Golden Calf (ibid. 32; 9), and cites this as the reason that His presence will not remain within the midst of the nation (ibid. 33; 3). Yet despite their stubbornness, when confronted with the enormity of their sin they readily repent, as evidenced by their removal of the crowns that they gained at Sinai (ibid. 5).

Rambam writes (Hilchot Gerushin 1; 1) that a bill of divorce (get) may only be written with the voluntary consent of the husband. Yet later (2; 20) he writes that in a case where the law mandates that a husband should give his wife a get and he refuses, the beis din (Jewish court of law) should whip him until he says ‘I want to give my wife a get’. The Rambam is telling us that sometimes a person’s stubbornness gets in the way of their true intentions. Therefore whipping them removes the stubbornness, and enables them to give the divorce willingly.

In a sense this is what G-d was doing to Pharaoh. He smote him and all of Egypt with plagues to see whether he would repent and let the Jews go voluntarily. Only after the sixth plague, when it was clear that Pharaoh’s inner desire was not to repent did G-d actually intervene to harden his heart. By this time if Pharaoh were to repent it would not be in order to bring him closer to G-d, but only to avoid the plagues. He had reached the point where he needed to follow through and see the consequences of his actions, and receive his due punishment.