Light from the Sidra

Va'era ('And he appeared...'). 9th January 2016. 28th Tevet 5776

Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35. Haftarah: Ezekiel 28: 25-29:21

HASHEM is great!

It is now a year since we were all appalled by the attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the subsequent attack on Parisian Jews. Typically, the automatic-weapon wielding barbarians who carried out the attacks shouted that their god is great. But just how great is a deity who rewards cold-blooded killers of unarmed civilians with an eternity of wine, women and song, the very things he forbids them on earth? If the god of the terrorists is so great, why didn’t he wreak his own vengeance in his own time in his own way?

In the Sidra this week, the God of Israel shows himself to be great in such an evident way that Egypt and the surrounding nations know he is the true God. And the only weapon Moses has at his disposal is his shepherd’s staff. The cry of the Israelites had gone up to HASHEM and he had come down to save them. To create the universe HASHEM had only to speak the word; to save his people he rolled up his sleeve, came down and did battle with the gods of Egypt. HASHEM could have struck down the Egyptians in a moment but he chose instead to save his people through a series of plagues that lasted probably the best part of a year. Why?

God redeemed Israel in the way he did so that the Egyptians would witness his power and know his name. The plagues also revealed to Israel that HASHEM was their God and that they were his people, ‘Say to the children of Israel: I am HASHEM, 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 judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am HASHEM your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 6:6-7).

A single plague might have been explained away as a freak event but ten plagues taking place in the precise way Moses foretold couldn’t be dismissed as coincidence. What became clear to the Egyptians – particularly to their magicians – was that the plagues were the ‘finger of God’. In less than a year HASHEM’s finger reduced one of the ancient world’s great superpowers to poverty and ruin. The ten plagues caused Egypt and the surrounding nations to fear the God of Israel, so much so that hundreds of years later, in the days of Samuel, the Philistines still remembered the ‘mighty things’ Israel’s God did in Egypt.

At the start of the Parasha, HASHEM says he will be known by his name YHWH. By his name HASHEM he makes himself known as the one who is able to keep his promises. Until that point in time it might have seemed that HASHEM was unable to redeem his people. After all, Egypt had an entire pantheon of deities of all shapes and sizes, each of them in control of some aspect of Egyptian life, and Israel had been slaves to them for 400 years. But in Genesis 15, at the time HASHEM established his unconditional covenant with Abraham and his offspring, he foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be strangers in ‘a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.’

Time was up. It was now four centuries since Israel had gone down to Egypt. It was now time for them to go up. The time had come for HASHEM to keep his promise and show Egypt that he was greater than all their gods. He was able to keep his promise to deliver his people even though Pharaoh, his army and all his gods stood in the way. Israel witnessed HASHEM’s great power not only in the plagues that fell on Egypt but also in the fact that the land of Goshen where they lived was preserved from the worst of the plagues.

The catastrophes that came on Egypt showed that HASHEM was powerful, but what if Pharaoh had not reacted to the disasters in the way God intended? How could HASHEM be sure the plagues would produce his desired effect on the king of Egypt? If Pharaoh was free to act in any way he chose, the turning of the Nile to blood might have been enough to make him mend his ways once and for all. Had that happened, God’s plan to demonstrate the fullness of his power would have been thwarted. The whole point of the plagues was that HASHEM might make his Name known and to demonstrate that he was able to redeem Israel at precisely the time and in exactly the way he chose.

The day after he was installed as Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks stated in a radio broadcast that the glory of Judaism is its teaching that the greatest sinner, by an act of the will, can become the greatest saint. But the Parasha shows us that our wills are not as free as we like to think they are. We may indeed have a good inclination but, as the Rabbi Saul of Tarsus explained in his letter to believers in the Messiah at Rome: ‘I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’

The rabbinic concept of the freedom of the human will is unrealistically optimistic. A young Israeli once told me that the difference between Jews and Christians is that Christians want God to do things for them, whereas Jews see themselves as the servants of God. He was right about Israel being the servant of God and the first message Moses was to convey to Pharaoh from God was, ‘Let my people go that they may serve me…’ No one can serve two masters and so long as Israel was in slavery to the gods of Egypt they could not serve HASHEM. The history of Israel after their redemption from Egypt reveals that they, like the rest of us, were in servitude to a worse task-master than their Egyptian oppressors. They were slaves to their basest instincts. So long as we are in bondage to yetzer hara – our evil inclination – we will not be free to serve HASHEM.

Just as HASHEM ‘came down’ figuratively to save Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses, in the period of the Second Temple he came down literally in order to save Israel and the world from a tyrant worse than Pharaoh. He came to save us from the Satan and our sins. And just as God’s instrument for redeeming Israel was a man with rod taken from a tree, his means of saving us from our sins was the tree on which the Messiah was nailed.

Israel could do nothing to save themselves from Egypt; they had to trust in HASHEM. So, too, to be saved from our sins, you and I must also trust in HASHEM and his Messiah.

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