Torah Reading for Week of December 22-28, 2013
“Starting Redemption with a Plague”
By Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew Language
Parashat Va’era has the unique distinction of being the Torah portion in which the redemption of the Nation of Israel from Egypt begins. This redemption is not immediate, instead it occurs after an extended period during which Egypt is beset by ten plagues. These plagues were not only a way to punish Egypt and demonstrate G-d’s pervasive power over the universe. They themselves were part of the process of redemption.
G-d says as much to the Pharaoh: “And I will render a redemption (to distinguish) between My nation and your nation.” וְשַׂמְתִּי פְדֻת בֵּין עַמִּי וּבֵין עַמֶּךָ. The clear distinction between the Israelites who were not affected by the plagues and the Egyptians who suffered from them is itself termed “a redemption.” For the Israelites to realize they had a different identity and fate than that of the Egyptians was the first step towards being free. People that have been enslaved for over two hundred years cannot just go free, even if allowed to do so. They identify too much with their captors and enslavers. The Israelites were functionally Egyptians, and in the cosmology of Egyptian culture they were the slaves. Consequently, they needed to realize that their fate was not bound up in serving their jailors, rather that it was their own to determine. Disengaging from the Egyptian nation into which they were assimilated and asserting their own nationhood and their own imperative for monotheistic divine worship was the first step towards achieving the freedom from Egypt that they, the People of Israel, were crying out for.
If the design of the ten plagues was to remind the Israelites that they were not Egyptian, it was also to inform them of who they were. The plagues were foremost an impossibly clear form of divine justice: the Egyptian oppressor was made to suffer while the oppressed Israelites were given relief. If the Israelites had ever despaired of justice and of hope, the plagues were an antidote to this despair. The People of Israel were shown that they were the people of a just G-d, a G-d of hope and promise. Serving the cruel Egyptians was never what should have defined the Israelites. What truly defines the Nation of Israel and the individual Jew is serving the just G-d and striving to live a life of Justice. It was through not only the enslavement in Egypt but also through the process of being freed from that slavery that the Nation of Israel was sensitized to its mission and purpose.