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Parsha Vaera

01/03/2019 08:45:29 PM

Jan3

A common phrase in the narrative of the Exodus is God’s reference to “taking the Jews from Egypt with a strong/outstretched arm.”  This same phrase is also found in the context of the mitzvah of Tefillin, which serve as a reminder for the Exodus, where the Torah succinctly sums up the point “so that you shall remember that God extricated you from Egypt with a strong hand.”  The implication is that it is not enough to simply remember the natural outcome of the Exodus in that we were freed, but it is rather crucial to recall the experience of the Exodus itself and the strength of God’s hand in the process.  What does it mean to remember God’s “strong hand,” and why is that the key phrase of God’s messages to the Jews in Egypt?

The Parsha begins with God telling Moshe that he will free the Jews from Egypt and Moshe then relating God’s message to the Jews.  Overcome by the burdens of labor, the Torah writes that the Jews did not “listen” to Moshe, meaning that they were disdainful of Moshe’s message and found it to be uncomforting.  It is difficult to understand this reaction, because last week’s Parsha already discussed a similar story of Moshe approaching the nation with a message of God’s promise for Redemption, and there the Torah writes “And the nation believed; they bowed and prostrated themselves to the ground.”  What is the difference between the messages of Shemos and Va’eira- why is one influential and well received and the other nominal and even provoking?  The Netziv explains the difference between the two messages is that the first only promises freedom, wealth, and redemption, whereas the second one here in Va’eira adds that through the Exodus the Jews will become God’s chosen people and attach to him in a committed bind of service.  While the assured wealth and freedom were music to the Jewish slaves in Shemos, Va’iera’s stress on a contingent commitment to serving God frustrated the slaves, as they simply were not interested in being freed from slavery only to enter into a different form of what they perceived to be the same issue.  This idea is manifest in Rashi’s comments later that only 1/5 of the Jews actually wanted to leave Egypt, and the Netziv suggests that even that 1/5 were still somewhat reluctant to the idea and just not openly opposed to it.  In his last comments to Parshas Shemos, Rashi implies that the strong hand of God was necessary more in pushing the Jews out of Egypt than in ensuring that the Egyptians would let the Jews go.  The difficulty in liberating the Jews that required a “strong hand from God” was that the Jews themselves resisted the freedom.  It is the subtle variance between helping a child who wants help and helping a child who is kicking and screaming against the help.  Only the parent’s “strength” and conviction of knowing what is ultimately good for the child can transcend the resistance of the child to get the job done.  The eventual climax of the Exodus is described in the Torah as happening in a state of haste and hurry, and the Talmud emphasizes that the Jews themselves left in a rushed and rapid manner.  Much like the screaming child whose parent swiftly pours medicine down their throat, God swiftly pulled us from Egypt before we were able to calculate what happened.

The emphasis placed on remembering God’s strong hand in the Exodus is to build our trust and reliance on God by realizing that we did not want to leave and it was only the strength of God’s hands that pulled us out of the mess we were in.  As we embrace our privilege of being a chosen nation and come to appreciate how service to God in no way resembles the physical slavery in Egypt, it is crucial for us to recall that we did not always feel that way and that we once resisted this great gift from God.  It is this lesson that is meant to help us through the challenges that we face in our present lives when we find ourselves resisting God’s providence and wishing that things would be a bit different.  Much like grown children who retrospectively appreciate the gifts of their parents that they had once resisted and learn to trust comfortably, so too we remember that we were freed only with God’s strong hand so that we can now trust freely.  

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Shevat 5779