Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 10-16, 2021
By Rabbi Rachel Axelrad, ’20
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.
God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and ask for freedom for the people. When God enables Moses to perform miracles on His behalf, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and he refuses to set them free. God sends devastating plagues onto Pharaoh and Egypt, stating Pharaoh will free God’s people and Pharaoh shall know that there is none like Him. God is the all-powerful deity Who is superior to the god of Egypt, Pharaoh. When God smites Egypt, He is smiting His inferior opposition. This is all well and good. What is interesting is that God chastises with plagues that cause fatal disease, rather than simply causing the earth to open up and swallow them, as He does later on with Korah. The ulterior motive is to make the opposition suffer. However, what actually happens? Pharaoh suffers, and every non-Israelite person in Egypt suffers. Egypt the inferior deity becomes a people, individuals who can suffer and die. And the intention is for them to know why they are suffering and dying, and Who is responsible.
Throughout the book of Numbers, we read of multiples instances wherein God sent a plague to punish the Israelites with massive deaths. The commonality in both sets of plagues is God’s assertion that He is sending plagues upon people-Egyptians and Israelites, and that they should know Who it is that is punishing them. How are we to understand this? First, the text teaches us that it is God-YHVH-Who does this. Second, that there are dire consequences for the most serious crimes. Therefore, we understand that Israel and the Egyptians are punished severely for crimes against God. Third, by extension, we understand that the plagues come from God.
This is the theology of the text. How do we relate these narratives to contemporary experiences? How do we explain COVID, for instance? A theology that tells us that the COVID virus is sent by God for the crimes of humanity against God doesn’t make sense. We are overwhelmed with both innocent and guilty people dying. The disease, like the plagues, doesn’t distinguish between individuals; it simply destroys large segments of the population. The theology of the prophets can’t realistically be applied to diseases like COVID. Science teaches us that viruses happen, and we scramble to develop mechanisms to counteract them. In so doing, we are saving lives and thereby fulfilling God’s law.
Instead of wrestling with the theology, let us step back and ask ourselves the following questions: Have we done everything we can to ensure that the virus impacts the fewest number of persons? Have we done everything we can to ensure that everyone is protected to the extent possible-are we wearing our masks and washing our hands? Have we done everything we can to ensure that all of those who are susceptible, or already exposed, have access to quality medical care? In fact, have we done everything we can to ensure that everyone, regardless of who they are, has access to good health care? Enough food to eat? Relief from the elements? While the Hebrew Bible teaches us that there will always be some who are poor and destitute among us, or the task is not ours to complete, at the same time we have the obligation to “do the job to the best of our ability”. Thus, we should take a message from the many plague narratives in our Holy texts, and examine ourselves as a community. We should learn our lessons-we are responsible for our fellow human beings and therefore we should wear our masks, encourage political action to guarantee health care to all, and do our best to fight poverty. If we do not make the effort, then we are indeed guilty of crimes against God.