Commentary for Va’eira

30 Jan

This week’s parshah ends with an extremely important and utterly fascinating series of verses. After the seventh plague has been in effect for some time, “Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron to him and said to them ‘this time I have sinned; the Lord is the righteous one and my people and I are the wicked ones. Entreat the Lord- there has been too much Godly thunder and hail; I shall send you out and you shall not continue to remain.’ Moses said to him, ‘When I leave the city I shall spread out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you shall know that the Earth is the Lord’s…’ Moses went out from Pharaoh, from the city, and he stretched out his hands to the Lord; the thunder and hail ceased and rain did not reach the land. Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn, he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart became strong and he did not send out the Israelites as the Lord had spoken through Moses (Ex. 9:27-35).”

As anyone familiar with the story of the Exodus knows, this sort of thing is almost formulaic. Pharaoh won’t let the Israelites go so God sends a plague. Pharaoh eventually cracks and promises to free the Israelites if the plague will be lifted, but the moment the plague ends he changes his mind. What most people will be surprised to learn is that here, in 9:34, after we are more than two thirds of the way done with the plagues, is the first time that the narration refers to Pharaoh as one who is committing a “sin,” and even more shockingly, this only occurs after Pharaoh himself uses the word in 9:27 to describe his behavior.

Rashbam explains that this choice of words is no accident. He posits that up until now Pharaoh truly believed himself to be in the right because his stubborn nature would not allow him to believe that Moses was anything more than a skilled magician who had invented a “God” to make himself appear more powerful, but that during this plague Pharaoh finally realized the truth: that the Lord was truly the God with power over all of creation, and Moses was no magician, but rather an emissary of the Lord. Once Pharaoh had come to that realization, vocalized in 9:27, any further refusal on his part ceases to be ignorance and becomes willful sin.

Humans are very smart creatures with very complex brains, but what sets us apart from the animals is the idea of morality- the ability to distinguish between right and wrong; what we should do and what we should not do. When God gave us this gift of morality, God also gave us the accompanying gift of guilt. While often portrayed as a negative emotion, guilt is really a positive force in our lives because it is often guilt that drives us to make the necessary change between what we have done and what we will do; what we are doing and what we know we should be doing. Pharaoh’s downfall is ignoring his guilt. He knows that he has acted wickedly in the eyes of the one true God, whose omnipotence he know understands… and yet he refuses to change his actions and start doing what he now knows that he should be doing. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of our history, but it is a story for our present as well. We should all take heed of Pharaoh’s failure. The next time you get that nagging feeling in the back of your head about what you really should be doing, follow it!

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