Parshat VaEira – Rosh Hodesh Shevat

SUMMARY: VaEira is the 2nd parasha in the Book of Shemot, spanning chapters 6:2-9:35 and containing the 1st seven plagues brought by G-d against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.   Where Parshat Shemot ended with Moshe’s frustrated claim against G-d for failing to free the Jewish slaves, VaEira begins with G-d’s response to Moshe that he’s heard the people’s cries and will 5-fold redeem them. Yet despite G-d’s reassurances, Bnei Yisrael refused to pay heed.

Rebuffed by his own people, Moshe challenged G-d, ‘why should Pharaoh listen if the Jewish people won’t?’ Patiently, G-d reiterated the command to Moshe and Aharon, both for Pharaoh and Bnei Yisrael.

The parasha digresses to give details of the children of Reuben, Shimon & Levi and then specifically, the family of Amram & Yokhebed, parents of Moshe & Aharon, listing the life spans of Levi (137), Kehat (133) and Amram (137). It adds Aharon’s wife Elisheva and their 4 sons and includes the children of Korah and Elazar.

Again Moshe was commanded to tell Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves. G-d added that Pharaoh would harden his heart and refuse to listen, in order for the Egyptian people to witness these wonders. Moshe was 80 years old and Aharon 83.

G-d sent them to Pharaoh, charging Aharon to use his staff and turn it into an alligator [not a snake as popularly thought]. When Pharaoh’s magicians did the same, Aharon’s staff swallowed theirs, but Pharaoh wasn’t impressed.

Moshe was sent to greet Pharaoh by the Nile in the early morning and threatened to turn the nation’s water supply into blood. In front of Pharaoh and his servants Aharon struck the water with his staff, it turned to blood killing all the fish. Pharaoh ignored the hardship and the Egyptians dug troughs to access drinking water.

The 2nd plague was an infestation of frogs. Again the Egyptian magicians reproduced the same. But Pharaoh, unable to withstand it, called Moshe & Aharon demanding they remove the frogs, offering to let them sacrifice to G-d. Moshe allowed Pharaoh to choose when the plague should cease, then left the city beseeching G-d to arrange accordingly. The following day the plague ended and shortly after Pharaoh’s heart hardened again.

Next was the plague of lice, also brought about through Aharon’s staff, and something Pharaoh’s soothsayers and magicians were unable to replicate. Still Pharaoh’s heart wouldn’t be turned.

The fourth plague was swarming flies which only affected the Egyptians and not the Jewish people in Goshen. Pharaoh consented to allow the people time off. Moshe insisted they needed 3 days to go into the desert to perform their sacrifices. Again, the plague ceased and Pharaoh reneged on his promise.

The fifth plague was murrain, a disease that affected all their livestock, though it had no impact on that belonging to Bnei Yisrael. Even though Pharaoh verified the Jewish people’s livestock weren’t impacted, he still refused to let them go.

The sixth plague was boils brought by Moshe throwing a handful of soot into the air. Though the magicians were unable to stand before Moshe due to the affect, Pharaoh continued to harden his heart.

The seventh plague was hailstones. Moshe rose early to warn Pharaoh it would be one of the most severe. The hailstones would even kill servants and animals left out in the fields. Some heeded Moshe’s warning and brought their chattel indoors. Others refused and left their servants and animals outdoors. Moshe extended his staff toward the heavens and fiery hail rained down unto the ground – something never seen before. It destroyed the trees and crops in all of Egypt except for Goshen.

Pharaoh summoned Moshe & Aharon admitting his sin; recognising G-d was righteous and he and his people were wicked, and asking for a reprieve. Moshe promised to ‘lift his hands heavenward upon leaving the city’ and bring a halt to the hail. When the hail ceased Pharaoh continued to sin and again hardened his heart.

COMMENT: An unsettling question is why all Egyptians had to suffer for the cruelty of Pharaoh and his advisors. True, the government of Pharaoh’s Egypt perpetrated crimes against the Hebrew slaves; throwing their first born males into the Nile and oppressing the Israelites with hard labour.

But why should the entire populace have suffered?

Abraham decried G-d’s ‘unjust plan’ to destroy the population of Sodom & Gomorrah consuming the righteous among the wicked. Wasn’t Egypt similar?

One view is that such a large part of the population either participated in the enslaving of the Jews, or stood by unwilling to protest, that in effect the entire nation became culpable. Leviticus 19:16, compels ‘not to stand idly while your brother’s blood is being shed’; implying that failure to protect creates liability.

In the past month, there’s been a controversy within the Orthodox community regarding recognizing the plight of victims from war-torn parts of the world and, at the least, introducing a prayer into the weekly liturgy beseeching upon them Divine mercy. Some have responded in favour and others have dissented.

VaEira teaches us that in each generation there’s a collective responsibility to champion and uphold basic human rights and freedoms. To be worthy of our mission as G-d’s holy nation – it’s not enough to stand idly by, helplessly, while devastation occurs both near to home and farther away.

Some glibly opt-out with statements ranging from suspicions of the evil intent of refugees to outright prejudice. But we all know what support we would want if in their place. VaEira is a reminder we were once oppressed, and that our silence today, like the Egyptians of old, could render us complicit in G-d’s eyes.