Last week we opened the Book of Shemot, or Exodus; this week we are in the second parashah – Va’eira. God tells Moses that God “appeared” to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…This is a passage of reassurance to Moses, who, whilst having agreed to challenge Pharaoh for the release of his people Israel, is still clearly in need of a confidence boost.
Vaeira is another one of those sections of Torah that sounds familiar to us – mostly because of our annual re-telling of this story. It all sounds very familiar: our ancestor’s servitude in Egypt, the recounting of the 10 plagues, Pharaoh’s hardened heart. One almost wants to break out into a raucous Dai Dai-einu and toss a few marshmallows around the room (for hail).
If anyone ever doubts our Jewish agrarian roots, have you noticed how many times and in how many places goats turn up? Even in our traditional marriage contracts, or ketubot, the bride, the kallah gives and is in turn, promised a certain amount (100 zuzim) if the marriage should dissolve. We don’t really know today what the value of azuz would be today, but we can guess. At the end of our Pesach Seder as we sing “Chad Gadya” we sing that 100 zuzim would be enough to buy 50 goats. “My father bought for 2 zuzim, chad gadya (one little goat).” Based on that information, we can calculate that 50 or 100 goats would keep most women in clothing and shelter for awhile!)
Back to Vaeira: God effectively verb-alizes His promise to Moses. Hence the four verbs of redemption: Take out, Deliver, Redeem and Acquire. While it is difficult not to think of the first two of these promises as Chinese take-out — otherwise known as Xmas Day dinner — altogether these four verbs sum up God-as-a-Be-coming God to all the Children of Israel and not just a private promise to Moses.
In His guise as a Burning Bush, God assures Moses that He will always be at the side of Moses. As we saw last week, Moses is not easily convinced, and he argues relentlessly with God about his lack of suitability for this job. It is almost as if his heart too was hardened – well prior to God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, a section of Torah that we all stumble over. So just who is hardening whom? And why? Moses finally relents, but one senses that his heart is certainly less than enthusiastic about being seconded by God. The peaceful shepherd leaves the hills of Midian and goes back into the torpidity of Mitzrayim.
Pharaoh, of course, is not interested in losing his workforce, regardless of the demands of their God. What’s a Pharaoh/god to do but refuse these early asks in Vaeira, regardless of the ensuing plagues. His sorcerers have already effectively hardened Pharaoh’s heart – he is a jaded man/god and cannot be seduced by mere illusion. If we step out of the drama of plagues for an instant, (join me, stage right), we read in Torah and in the V’ahavta prayer, that God demands a softening of our hearts with the words of Torah. 36 times we are commanded to be kind to the stranger, for we too were strangers in Mitzrayim. Our work as Jews, it would seem, is to not consider the strange/other a stranger, but to face that stranger with the same degree of openness that we welcome those familiar to us.
This past Shabbat we had guests for an early supper – I had thought they were coming the following week, but found out at the very last minute they were coming within 30 minutes! I flew around the house, thawing soup, clearing the table, whipping up a batch of scones – with such joy and anticipation. We hadn’t seen this family for two years – I was so full of love, and yet today I wonder would I have dropped everything with such joy for a stranger needing some soup?
Sometimes I gestalt Torah as I read Torah. I find it useful to consider the story from all angles, to become all players, if you will. So, today, I am Pharaoh sitting on my gilt throne, staring at this man-almost-my-grandson. I adopted you, I think to myself, I took you in, my daughter loved you as her son, and you rejected my daughter, me, and all that I have. Why should I even listen to you? I am Moses: I look up and see your cruel stern face. You were kind to me, but to my people you showeda hard-heartedness beyond anything you ever showed me. Who are you? You are my grandfather in name only. I am God: I look down at my children, their hearts are colliding. Iron will-refusal-of-a shared-past meets strength-of-hope-in an-uncertain future.All are caught in a rusting chain of wills. And I am now the River running red with blood; the blood of all the babies I swallowed, the blood of the women who cleansed themselves, I am the blood of death, the blood of life. I am the River. I am.
This drama we read in Vaeira will continue, but today, let’s pause here. Let’s reflect on our own granite-heartedness, and ask ourselves: Where am I implacable? Where can I just not give any further? When do I say, never again? What will push me into be-coming and not just be-ing? And if not now, when?
At our Pesach Seder we eat a Hillel sandwich. This is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: He ate the Paschal lamb, the matzo and the bitter herbs as one, in fulfillment of the verse, “with matzot and maror they shall eat it”(Numbers 9:11).
With that bite of maror, of bitterness, we remember our obligations of freedom. Just as Shabbat is that added spice that makes our Shabbat meals so delicious, so too is bitterness our essential herb of memory. Shabbat shalom.