G‑d reveals Himself to Moses. Employing the “four expressions of redemption,” He promises to take out the Children of Israelfrom Egypt, deliver them from their enslavement, redeem them, and acquirethem as His own chosen people at Mount Sinai; He will then bring them to the land He promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage.
Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G‑d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake and swallows the magic sticks of the Egyptian sorcerers. G‑d then sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians.
The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the land; liceinfest all men and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; apestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians. For the seventh plague, fire and ice combine to descend from the skies as a devastating hail. Still, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the children of Israel go, as G‑d had said to Moses.”
“This shows the essential unity of the Oral and Written Torah.”
Torah Reading: VA-EIRA Exodus 6:2-9:3
“WITH MY NAME YKVK I WAS NOT KNOWN TO THEM”
At the end of last week’s parshah of SHEMOS, we saw how, precisely when Moses started the process of Geulah (redemption) by asking Pharaoh to send away the Children of Israel, the latter responded by intensifying their oppression and servitude. This caused even Moses to question his mission: “Lord, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me?” (Ex. 5:22).
Our parshah of VA-EIRA opens with G-d’s answer to Moses. It contains a profound teaching about faith. G-d promises, and it is up to G-d to deliver! He can be relied upon absolutely to do so — in His own good time. Even in the thickest darkness, we must have faith that G-d will redeem us. We must understand that the darkness is most intense just before the morning.
In G-d’s answer to Moses, He says that He appeared to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as “the Eternal G-d” but “WITH MY NAME YKVK I WAS NOT KNOWN TO THEM” (Ex. 6:3). What does this mean? It is a fact that the essential name of HaShem, YKVK — expressing the perfect unity of G-d within and beyond all phenomena — was indeed known to the patriarchs, as we see many times in Genesis. However, as pointed out by Rashi here, the Hebrew text (NODA’TI) does not mean, “I did not make it known to them”. Rather, it implies: “I was not known and RECOGNIZED for my quality of truthfulness. as HaShem Who am faithful in proving the truth of My words. For I promised them but as yet I have not fulfilled the promise” (see Rashi).
An integral part of faith in G-d is to have faith that He will bring about everything He has promised through His prophets, even if we cannot see how this can possibly come about. The Exodus from Egypt is the proof of this faith, for G-d had promised the patriarchs what He was going to do: “And also the people that they will serve I will judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great wealth” (Gen. 15:13-14). At the height of Egyptian power and arrogance, it seemed impossible that this could come about. But in this and the coming parshiyos telling the story of the Ten Plagues and the Exodus, we see that G-d indeed brought it about.
No less essential a part of the promise than the redemption from Egypt was that G-d will “bring you to the Land that I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I WILL GIVE IT TO YOU AS AN INHERITANCE — I AM HASHEM” (Ex. 6:8). It is not sufficient for the Children of Israel “go out from Egypt”, even in the spiritual sense of being released from the chains of servitude to the evanescent material world. G-d’s plan for a perfect world will be fulfilled only when the Children of Israel dwell securely in their own Promised Land, fulfilling all the commandments that are bound up with the Land. We must have complete faith that G-d will bring this about.
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KAL VA-CHOMER – “Light and stringent”
When the Children of Israel could not hear Moses’ message of redemption because of “shortness of spirit and hard work” (Ex. 6:9), Moses wondered: “If the Children of Israel did not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me?” (ibid. v. 12).
Moses’ argument is based on making an inference from a “light” case — the Children of Israel — to a “stringent” case: Pharaoh. In Hebrew such an inference is known as KAL VA-CHOMER, “light-and-stringent”. In the written text of the Five Books of Moses there are ten cases of arguments using KAL VA-CHOMER (Rashi ad loc.) The ten cases are listed in the Tannaitic commentary on Exodus, “Mechilta”. The argument of KAL VA-CHOMER is one of the most important of the hermeneutical methods by which the sages derived teachings by inference even though they are not written explicitly in the Torah text. KAL VA-CHOMER is the first of “thirteen rules of Torah interpretation” set down by the tannaitic sage, Rabbi Ishmael. These have become part of the daily order of prayer, being recited at the conclusion of the sacrificial portions prior to PSUKEY DE-ZIMRA, the verses and psalms of the morning service. Besides Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen, there are other hermeneutical rules, such as the Thirty-Two rules of Midrash collected by Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi HaGalili (printed in the KLALIM, “rules” of the Talmud, after Tractate Berachos).
As in the case of Moses’ argument by KAL VA-CHOMER that Pharaoh would not listen, all the other rules of interpretation are themselves contained in the biblical text. It is through the application of these rules that extensive parts of the Oral Torah were developed by the early sages and rabbis. When rules like KAL VA-CHOMER are applied to the text, it is possible to infer new teachings that are not explicitly written in the text but are logically implied. The legitimacy of this method of argument is sanctioned by its use in the Biblical text itself, as here. This shows the essential unity of the Oral and Written Torah.
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THE TEN PLAGUES
In the event, G-d took on the “harder” task of bringing down Pharaoh and breaking his stony heart. This was what would make the Children of Israel listen! This was accomplished through the Ten Plagues. The gripping account of the first seven plagues occupies the greater part of this week’s parshah of VAYEIRA, while next week’s parshah of BO bring us to the climax with the last three plagues and the Exodus itself.
Many have sought to explain the sequence of plagues according to some rationale. One of the most celebrated explanations is that mentioned by Rashi on Ex. 8:17, quoting from Midrash Tanchuma Parshas BO #4, a Tannaitic source:
“Our Rabbis of blessed memory said: The Holy One blessed be He brought the plagues upon them using the tactics of worldly kings. When a region rebels against a king of flesh and blood, he sends his legions to surround it. The first thing he does is to shut off their water supply. If they relent, all the better! If not, he brings against them criers with loud voices… then arrows. barbarian hordes. He hurls heavy weights at them. shoots burning oil. fires cannon. rouses multitudinous armies against them. imprisons them. kills their great ones. In the same way, the Holy One blessed be He came against the Egyptians with the tactics of kings. With the plague of blood He stopped up their water supply. The “criers” were the frogs with their loud croaking. His “arrows” were the fleas. His “barbarian hordes” were the wild animals. The “heavy weights” were the “heavy pestilence” that killed their livestock. The “burning oil” was the boils. The cannon shots were the hail. The “multitudinous armies” were the locusts. The Egyptians were “imprisoned” through the plague of darkness. Finally, He killed their great ones in the plague of the first born.”
A kabbalistic explanation of the sequence and rationale of the plagues is provided in the writings of the ARI in Sha’ar HaPsukim (the Gate of the Verses) Parshas Va-eira. The Ten Plagues correspond to the Ten Sefiros, ascending from the bottom of the “ladder” to the top. Thus the seven plagues recounted in this week’s Parshah of VA-EIRA correspond to the seven “lower” sefiros, from Malchus-Kingship up to Chessed-Kindness, while the three plagues recounted in next week’s Parshah of BO correspond to the top trio: Binah-Understanding, Chochmah-Wisdom and finally Keser-Crown. According to this explanation, the Ten Plagues came as successive manifestations of the 10 different aspects or “attributes” of G-d’s kingly power over all the world (the ten sefiros of MALCHUS — or “NUKVA” — of ATZILUS). In this way the arrogant supremacy of worldly power, the “Evil MALCHUS” — the force that conceals G-dliness — was broken. Behind the nightmare to which Egypt was subjected — apparently the very opposite of SEDER, “order” — lies the supreme order of the Sefiros.
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THE PHARAOH WITHIN US
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult. Lest G-d will see and it will be bad in His eyes” (Proverbs 24:17).
We may not laugh over Pharaoh’s downfall, because there is a Pharaoh in each one of us. This is the stubborn MELECH (king) who rules in our hearts, in our ego, our vanity and pride. I. me.!
Writ large in the drama of Moses coming against Pharaoh in the name of G-d is the story of our inner lives, our daily conflicts and struggles in the test of free will to which we are all subjected. One side of us — Moses, “conscience” — knows what we should do. But another side — Pharaoh, “the evil urge”, the king riding the chariot — resists. There are constant ups and downs in the trial of free will. Today one “wants to” — Pharaoh relents. Tomorrow, he hardens his heart again and resists.
Does it need plagues to beat this Pharaoh down? Or can we find better ways to get free and to take our destiny into our hands?
Shabbat Shalom! Chodesh Tov Umevorach!
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
PO Box 50037 Jerusalem 91500 Israel