Parshat Vaera 2018
Last week Pharaoh threw a challenge into Moshe’s face: Who is this God, he said mockingly. I don’t know your God and I won’t let his people go. This week the gloves are removed, the heavy artillery is rolled out and the battle of the Titans begins: the God of the Hebrews vs the dual gods of Egypt, Pharaoh and the Nile River. We experience the first seven of ten plagues and slowly see how awareness of the power of the God of the Hebrews seeps into Pharaoh’s consciousness and brings him not only to know this hitherto unknown God but to accept the fact that He leaves Pharaoh in the dust.
But before the battle begins another party must be recruited to the fray. The Israelites themselves. In the first installment of the story, last week, the Israelites showed initial enthusiasm until the going got tough, when they turned tail and turned against Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of aiding and abetting Pharaoh in his attempts to kill them.
And so this parsha begins with a message from God to Moshe, deceivingly similar to the one he received at the burning bush. At the burning bush, God said that He would bring the people to a land flowing with milk and honey, which is what Moshe told the people. They followed him then, until they didn’t.
This time the message does not mention milk, honey, tea or latte. It mentions redemption, being borne out of Egypt, to a land that was promised to them.
As Rabbi David Stav points out, milk and honey were reasonable images for Moshe, who had grown up in the palace and was living a quiet, solid life in Midian. He understood them as attainable symbols of the good life.
But the Israelites had no milk and honey, metaphorically speaking. All they had was the dregs. They couldn’t even imagine milk and honey. All they wanted was a respite from their suffering. As every good salesman knows, you gotta know the territory. You have to know whom you’re talking to and what they want. Redemption was the ticket to their hearts.
And so the battle begins. Pharaoh is smug. His viziers and magicians are the tops. No hocus-pocus will change his mind. And then come the plagues. Blood. Then frogs.
Here something strange occurs. Frogs have invaded and infested every part of Egypt. Even Pharaoh is not immune to them. Yet, when Moshe asks when do you want me to get rid of them, Pharaoh doesn’t say NOW! IMMEDIATELY! He says tomorrow. What was his thinking?
According to Dr. Brachi Elizur, Pharaoh was a bit shaken but he still believed, half-heartedly, quarter-heartedly, that this was some form of a natural phenomenon that would go away by itself. And so he decided to test Moshe by giving him a specific date for its removal. He lost again. We also read that Pharaoh “hardened his heart,” which means he became braver – not a smart thing to do in such a battle.
With all this emphasis on Pharaoh and how the plagues affect him, we sometimes lose sight of the second important function of the plagues: to convince the Israelites that their time had come, that they had might on their side and could in actual fact stand up to Pharaoh. That had been an impossibility when Moshe began his service to God. They were afraid, and rightfully so.
But now the tables were turning. With each plague Pharaoh was losing the heretofore blind support of his loyal followers (they were already saying “it’s the finger of God”) and at the same time he was losing his deterrent power in the eyes of his slaves.
This was because he was being attacked on all fronts. First the water, his strongest ally (the Nile). Then the air. Then the earth. Plagues infested the country from here, there and everywhere, leaving no place over which Pharaoh could claim dominion.
But the purpose was not to destroy Egypt. That could have been accomplished with ease. No, it was to impress the Israelites and the Egyptians and give them the courage to rise up, eventually, and actually leave the land.
We will see that although they left Egypt, Egypt never left them, but that is another story.
What lessons can we learn from the chain of events that unfolds in our parsha? First, as I said, you have to know the territory. You have to know whom you are dealing with and adapt your messages to them.
Second, never take for granted you have the upper hand. The fact is that at least in this world, there is always someone who is MORE: he is bigger, stronger, faster than you. People tell me, Wow, you are tall. And I say, there’s always someone taller.
Third, remember that your allies – in Pharaoh’s case the water, the earth and the air – are your allies only until it is no longer in their interest to be allies. Then they are your enemies, and they are the most dangerous because they know you best. You can ask all the politicians whose former aides and best friends are now singing in police headquarters.
Fourth, don’t believe that what works for one person will work for you. Aharon turns a staff into a snake. So do Pharaoh’s magicians. But their staffs are eaten by Aharon’s snake staff. Today, people who would like to follow Trump’s form of leadership or publicity will not necessarily succeed. If they do, to any extent, it’s because too many people can be fooled too much of the time even when they know they are being fooled.
Next week we’ll see how Pharaoh fares with the rest of the plagues and here’s a spoiler: it won’t go so well for him.