Va-Era. Diane Bernbaum. Netivot Shalom. January 16, 2021.
Our parasha this morning, Va-Era, the second parshah in the book of Sh’mot, means “And I appeared,” as God reminds Moses that He appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I really don’t need to tell you the story. You know it well. Just close your eyes and think back to those confusing, difficult days of early April. You didn’t know where your toilet paper was going to come from or how you’d get back inside the Berkeley Bowl ever again and if you did, would there be food on the shelves. But chances are, somehow, you pulled together a seder. Perhaps you were just learning Zoom technology and were celebrating your seder with friends or relatives from across the country – or with people in the house next door. Or perhaps you were like my husband Ed and myself. We were out on the back deck with our son David who was sitting socially distanced at his own card table nearby. Or maybe even you were in your house all by yourself.
But however you celebrated your seder, undoubtedly you came to the part where you heard: Dam, Ts’fardaya, Kinim, Arov, Dever, Shkin, Barad: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Insects, Cattle Disease, Boils, Hail. You actually heard a few more plagues than that, but our story, our parshah stops with seven. For the end of the story, come back to shul next week.
But although this story is so familiar to us, honed by annual repetition, to the people actually living through it- the Children of Israel, Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh -, everything was very new and if we look closely, we can look at this story as an evolution of leaders and followers. Just as we have evolved since last Pesach from Zoom newbies, panicked at not being able to log on, into people adept at switching from speaker to gallery view, knowledgeable about the etiquette of when to remain muted or when to turn off video so we can multitask in private or even if we’re just having a bad hair day, so too do we see Biblical personalities evolving before our eyes.
So who evolves in our story? Our main characters are of course Pharaoh, the tag team of Moses and Aaron and the Israelites. The missing piece are the Egyptian people. They are the punching bag. These plagues all happen to them, but we really aren’t told a lot about how they react.
Perhaps the person with the least personal growth in this story, of course is Pharaoh. When confronted with Moses and Aaron’s request to “Let My People Go”, his answer is “no.” My husband Ed and I have a family story. When our older son David was 5, we had a seder where the guests were the families of a few of his young friends. At the appropriate point, David directed his friends into a play, telling the story of the Exodus. He cast his younger brother Jonathan, deep into his “Terrible Twos” as Pharaoh. As a two year-old, Jonathan was adept at saying his one line: NO, and anyone who ever has been around a tantrummy toddler, recognizes Pharaoh’s behavior. He is stubborn. He doesn’t want to part with what he considers rightfully his. He relies on his magicians, his sycophantic courtiers, to do his bidding. But the magicians around Pharaoh don’t have as much power as they thought they had, and the Pharaoh realizes he can’t rely on them. Pharaoh changes his mind. He first says “No” to requests to allow the Israelites to leave. Then after a plague or two he says they can at least go out of town to make sacrifices to God. But once the plague has been withdrawn, Pharaoh’s heart is again hardened. To those who read the newspaper, or like our household, stay glued to t.v. news much of the day, this behavior is recognizable, sadly, even today.
But if Pharaoh makes few strides at changing who he is as a leader, Moses is the opposite. When we first meet him this week at the beginning of the parasha, he has no self-confidence. God asks Moses to tell the people that God will bring them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, but, we are told in Chapter 6:9 “When Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” So when God tells Moses to confront Pharaoh, Moses refuses, asking how he should hope to convince Pharaoh that God will liberate the Israelites if he can’t even convince the Israelites themselves. God wisely suggests to Moses that he take his older brother Aaron with him, someone who can do the talking to compensate for Moses’ speech defect and we see Moses’ confidence begin to grow.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the renowned British rabbi who died this past November, had kindly already written his Torah commentary for this week’s parshah before he passed away. In it, Rabbi Sachs looks at this development of leadership and writes:
“There is an enduring message here. Leadership, even of the very highest order, is often marked by failure. The first Impressionists had to arrange their own art exhibition because their work was rejected by the established Paris salons. The first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot, with the audience booing throughout. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime despite the fact that his brother, Theo, was an art dealer.
So it is with leaders. Lincoln faced countless setbacks during the Civil War. He was a deeply divisive figure, hated by many in his lifetime. Gandhi failed in his dream of uniting Muslims and Hindus together in a single nation. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, accused of treason and regarded as a violent agitator. Winston Churchill was regarded as a spent force in politics by the 1930s, and even after his heroic leadership during the Second World War he was voted out of office at the first General Election once the war was over. Only in retrospect do heroes seem heroic and the many setbacks they faced reveal themselves as stepping-stones on the road to victory.”
By the end of our parasha Moses’ confidence has grown. He has learned how to speak truth to power. By chapter 9:29, it is Moses, not Aaron who is doing the talking as he tells Pharaoh that he will go out of the city and “spread out my hands to the Lord” to stop the hail and the thunder of the seventh plague.
But, if Pharaoh doesn’t grow at all and Moses grows a lot, what about the Israelites? When preparing a drash, I always like to check in with congregant Sarah Lefton’s brilliant and wise on-line video commentary, Bim Bom. In the Va-Era video written by Rabbi Katie Mizrachi, we are told that although usually the plagues are thought of as a punishment for Pharaoh, designed to change his mind, a second effect, just as important, is that the plagues convince the Israelites of the power of God. The Israelites go from the quivering mass at the beginning of the parashah who won’t believe Moses when he tells them that God will deliver them, a people with “spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” to a group of people willing to follow their leader into the Red Sea. The plagues, say Rabbi Mizrachi, “are a way for God to come alive in the eyes of the Israelite slaves. With every plague, the children of Israel watched as their God fought on their behalf for their freedom. With every new wonder, they were more and more sure that a terrible and awesome power existed beyond themselves. They began to remember who they were, to have hope that Pharaoh could be defeated and to imagine that their lives might serve some purpose beyond slavery.”
One always looks at the Torah, whether we realize it or not, through a lens, often a lens of life experience or current events. And since January 6, or maybe even since November 3 or November 7, I have mainly been using one set of glasses. Maybe you have too. We have just read a parasha where Moses pleads to “Let my people go,” while on t.v. and in most conversations I suspect all of us are having these days, it is the people, the Congress, the pundits, who are instead begging Pharaoh to go. Our culture has evolved. How amazing it is to think that it is the people who get to stay and legally make sure that it is Pharaoh who does the leaving.
This is a parasha about change, about a good leader getting stronger and a strong leader getting weaker, about a people understanding that they are not forgotten. It is a cautionary tale of an executive who changes his mind: yes, no, yes, no, even- we’ll see next week- sending out chariots to undo a decision. He asks his advisors to do magic and finds that the magic on the other side is even stronger.
And today, we hope that just as in the book of Shmot, there is a divine safety net that will pull us through the next days. Whether you call that divine safety net God or maybe just The Constitution.
We are told in chapter 7:3 that Pharaoh’s behavior is part of a divine plan to show off divine power. Only when Pharaoh says: “No”, can God make the plagues. And just as God had to harden Pharoah’s heart in order to bring about the plagues that really showed Divine power, so too perhaps things had to get really bad on Januaryx 6 for some in the government – and across the nation- to see reality.
There are three more plagues. But we know that. We’ve read ahead in the book. We go to the seders every year. We know how that story ends. And there are three more days. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and then we will wake up on Wednesday morning, hopefully filled with faith, in both the divine and in the institution of democracy.
We need to keep in mind the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that I read a few moments ago: “Only in retrospect do heroes seem heroic and the many setbacks they faced reveal themselves as stepping-stones on the road to victory.”
It’s our job in the days and weeks ahead to look for those heroes and support the many women and men who struggle each day to grow as leaders, speaking truth to power and just as the Children of Israel needed to learn to believe that the impossible was possible, we need to learn to develop that faith as well.