The Moral and Historical Imperatives of Exodus

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jason Strauss

Parshat Va’era seems to be merely a transition between Shemot and Bo, with no independent significance or character.  Last week’s Torah reading introduced us to Moshe’s character, to Aaron, and to the suffering of the Jewish People in Egypt, while Pharaoh’s decision to release the Jewish People doesn’t happen until next week.  It’s not clear why Va’era stops after the first seven plagues.  Moreover, Va’era opens with a narrative that seems redundant. G-d and Moshe re-litigate G-d’s command to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt and Moshe’s qualifications for the task.

Why was this relitigation necessary?  At the end of Parshat Shemot, Moshe views himself as a failure who has made things worse rather than better for the Jewish People. He accuses G-d of having increased their suffering.  Why is he willing to try again?  G-d’s response must contain something more than a pep-talk to inspire Moshe to return to Pharaoh.  It must effect a change in his self and his self-perception.  

In Parshat Shemot, Moshe is identified with moral sensitivity and principle.  Rav Yaakovson, the Rosh Yeshiva of Shaalvim, explains that “ויצא אל אחיו וירא בסבלותם,” (Exodus 2:11) means that Moshe left his comfortable life style and paid attention to the suffering of his brothers. As Rashi says, “נתן עיניו בלבו”, meaning that he looked inside himself and felt the pain of others. Three times in Shemot, Moshe sees injustice and refuses to stand by idly by; he rescues a fellow Jew being beaten by an Egyptian, a Jew from another Jew, and a group of non-Jewish women from other non-Jews. Unsurprisingly, the Midrash identifies Moshe with righteous justice (Shemot Rabbah 5:10).

However, as Rav Yonatan Grossman notes, Moshe does not yet identify with his people as a historical community. When faced with rejection and threats by his people in Egypt, Moshe runs to Midian instead of continuing to defend the people. Likewise, during Moshe’s initial conversation with Hashem at the burning bush, G-d only mentions that He has “seen” or “heard” the suffering of the Jewish People; there is no mention of the covenant or a historical/national reason for redemption.

In Parshat Va’era, however, Moshe is  rejected by the people and yet still defends them to G-d.  This expression of empathy and identification leads G-d to reveal the special covenant between Him and the people, forged with their ancestors: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5). In Va’era, Moshe is for the first time charged with both a moral and a historical mission to redeem Israel from bondage.

As Rabbi Hayyim Angel observes, this explains the abrupt shift in 6:14 from the conversation between G-d and Moshe to Moshe and Aharon’s lineage. Until this point, Moshe’s lineage and heritage were not essential components of his mission or of his willingness to follow G-d’s instruction to liberate the Jewish People; he represented abstract justice.  In Parshat Va’era, Moshe realizes that he must represent the Jewish people as well.  This inspires another crisis of confidence as an outsider: how can he convince Israel, much less Pharaoh, of the possibility of Exodus?  Therefore, the Torah reminds us, and Moshe, of his deep historical connections to the people and its leadership; he and his brother are very much in a position to represent Israel in arguing for their freedom.

 

Sources:

Angel, Hayyim. J. (2014). A Synagogue Companion: Insights on the Torah, Haftarot, and Shabbat Morning Prayers. New York, NY: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Grossman, Yonatan. “The Two Consecrations of Moshe” Virtual Beit Midrash. Yeshivat Har Etzion, 1997. Web. 23 January 2017.

Rabbi Jason Strauss (SBM 2012, 2013, 2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

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