Torah Reading for Week of December 30, 2018 – January 5, 2019
“Va’era and a Little More”
by Rabbi Bruce Skolnick, MD, PhD, ’16
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
The Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. Of those years they were slaves for 400 years. Remember that Jacob and his sons originally made the trip to Egypt because of drought in Canaan and to reunite with Joseph. Joseph died after some years, and a new Pharaoh rose to power who was not friendly to the Israelites. The years of slavery began.
Slavery was certainly physically difficult. Long hours of difficult physical labor must have resulted in pulled muscles, joint pain, dehydration, and other injuries related solely to the long hours of work. There were undoubtedly also injuries inflicted upon them by Egyptian taskmasters. They were probably beaten with whips, causing welts, deep skin injuries, and bleeding. These injuries left the scarring of painful and restrictive keloid formation. Little description of injuries exists in the Torah, but we know Moses beat an Egyptian taskmaster to death after witnessing a beating. It must have been depressing to continually sustain physical injuries.
Perhaps worse than physical injuries must have been the emotional scarring and humiliation the Israelites felt from lack of independence and loss of freedom while in servitude. Remember the Israelites had no Torah yet. They were monotheists living at the behest of polytheist hosts. They must have been humiliated by their lot in life. 400 years must have seemed an eternity. We don’t know why God allowed the Israelites to sink so low. But God heard the voices of the Israelites, and in Exodus 6:5 God stated
“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.”
God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Why was Moses suitable for the task? He was initially raised by his mother and then by Pharaoh’s daughter. So he knew the life of the Israelites, and then became accustomed to the ways of the regal palace, probably getting to know Pharaoh himself. When Moses was commanded to speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go he probably wasn’t so afraid to meet with him (even though he had a speech impediment). Moses knew the ways of the Israelites and Pharaoh.
Why did God let the Israelites suffer as slaves for 400 years? Was it punishment for bad behavior? There were no Mitzvot yet because God had not yet given the Torah to the Israelites. When Jacob and his family went to Egypt they were only 70 in number, hardly enough people to constitute a nation. 400 years later there were 600,000 Israelite men, and with women and children the number went over a million. That is an adequate number to constitute a country. Perhaps God thought to leave the Israelites in Egypt to increase in number to be able to populate the country of Israel.
If the goal was to have the country of Israel why not give the Israelites the Torah earlier when they were in Egypt? They were given the Torah only two months after leaving Egypt. So they had forty years to accept the Torah as the guiding light of God. Living in Egypt for 430 years (400 as slaves) it is not surprising the Israelites would become rough around the edges and adopted some of the polytheistic practices of the Egyptian people. The 430 years were a preview of the future living in the diaspora. It sometimes takes great gevurah, great strength to maintain one’s Judaic principles. Every day we choose whether to follow God’s Mitzvot. Our Israelite ancestors living and toiling in Egypt had similar choices, particularly the belief in one God. They lived in Egypt for 430 years without the Torah. It took only 40 years for the next generation of Israelites to adopt the Torah and live under God’s Commandments as they moved into the promised land.