Torah Talk on Parshat Va’era 5779
As this week’s portion of Va’era begins, the Israelites are in Egyptian slavery and the mysterious man Moses has returned to try to free them from bondage. God brings about a series of plagues that traumatize the Egyptians and bedevil the Pharaoh, king of Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, boils and cattle disease serially afflict the land and its inhabitants, or at least the non-Israelites. In next week’s portion of Bo three more plagues will come—hail, locusts, and darkness. They lead up to the final plague, the slaying of the first-born and, finally, the Exodus. This famous narrative will bring us to the great moment in which our ancestors are freed from slavery, which has become the model for emancipation movements ever since.
While liberation is the goal, the method matters here. The plagues are interesting in and of themselves. There are three sets of three plagues each, increasing in severity and complexity, every one designed to prove the power of the true God and the impotence of the pagan gods of Egypt. The Nile River was a principle deity of Egypt, as well as the source of its life and livelihood, and so, for the first plague, God simply turns it to undrinkable, unfertile blood. There are frog gods in the Egyptian pantheon, and they are next turned into pests that infest homes and fields. The scarab is a sacred beetle to Egyptians, symbol of the Pharaoh’s power, and insects like it are then used to torment the inhabitants. And so it goes: sacred cows contract fatal diseases, the fertility of the holy land of Egypt itself is destroyed, and finally, the sun itself, representing the great Ra, highest deity among all the gods of ancient Egypt, is blotted out for days.
These plagues are a statement of belief, of theology. There is only one God, and those who adhere to other gods and use their own power to enslave others will be overthrown with Divine majesty by a greater power. The arrogant will be overcome. Freedom will ultimately win out. And justice, through the true God, will triumph in the end.
It’s a message that still has resonance today.
Whenever we come to believe that evil is destined to reign, that those who enslave others will rule, that the wicked who use control for malign purposes are destined to flourish, we should re-read this plagues narrative in Exodus. For, at heart, this is a universe created by God for good, and God ultimately will return us to that path. No matter what malign actions are taken by those who are truly evil, God will ultimately bring about redemption.
Our task is to work towards that end in our own lives and using our own abilities. When we find ways to increase justice in this complex world, we are simply doing the work for which we were made, for which the universe was made, and thus, we are serving God.