Parashat Va’eira Erev Shabbat 31 December 2021 (5782)
Week of 26 Dec 2021 – 1 Jan 2022
Torah portion: Exodus Ex. 6:2-9:35   Haftarah: Ezek. 28:25-29:21
Theme: The signs of our times

When reading this week’s parashah, one might be forgiven for thinking that the series of ‘plagues’ described within its verses offers a parallel to the environmental crises currently afflicting our common home and its creatures (Neril & Dee, 108). One might then ask what sort of agency humanity has to change the course of these events, just as the rabbis have asked how Pharaoh might have averted the disasters befalling his domain.

First, let’s look at the so-called ‘plagues’ (Heb. mageifot). Although the phrase ‘ten plagues’ (eser makkot) has become part of our religious vernacular, it appears only twice in the biblical text (Ex 9:14 & 11:1). It is, rather, a rabbinic title and thus shapes our interpretation of the events described in this parashah. Rachel Havrelock suggests that we should consider the ‘plagues’ as “divine acts” described in these verses as “signs”, designed not to punish, but rather to “convince Pharaoh, the Israelites, and the reader of God’s might” (Eskenazi, 338).

The reality is, however, that these signs do punish people, animals, and other living things. Does God wish to inflict this suffering upon the world for the sake of the Israelites, or might this rather be a cautionary tale designed to remind us of God’s power and our need for humility rather than hubris? This leads to our second question, that of human agency in the face of divine intervention—or natural disasters.

An image synonymous with the Exodus story is that of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and diminishing his agency to participate in the liberation of the Israelites—and, one can imagine, his own liberation. A closer reading of this week’s parashah reveals that for the most part, it is not God who hardens Pharoah’s heart, but rather the ruler himself (7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7, 34, 35 and once in Parashat Bo).

But what are we to make of LORD hardening Pharaoh’s heart (7:3, 9:12 and another 8 times in other parashot)? Seforno wrestles with this dilemma, arguing that in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, LORDis in fact giving him a choice between releasing the Israelites as a sign of his repentance before the divine, or in submission to the afflictions facing him and his people (Lewis, 122). Alternatively, Sheldon Lewis suggests that Pharaoh’s continued intransigence makes the possibility of his giving in to the power of God, less and less likely as the signs continue, and he falls into a pattern of behavior that is almost impossible to change (123).

Whilst we do not see the culmination of this ever-increasing series of catastrophes until next week’s portion, we are left with a foreboding sense that this will not end well for Pharaoh, who once more hardens his heart, refusing to let the Israelites go, just as LORD had foretold through Moses (9:35).

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Ultimately, if Pharaoh had been able to interpret the signs before him, he might have been able to avert the disasters that befell Egypt, its crops, animals, and people (Neril & Dee, 108). What made this impossible? How are we to read the signs of the times before us? How will we respond?

Bibliography: Eskenazi, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008); Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation (Gefen, 2012); Neril & Dee, Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus (Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, 2020).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Kingsville, Bunurong Country,Australia

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