Parashat Va-eira is an epic and escalating battle between God and Pharaoh. God, having finally decided to rescue the Israelites from cruel servitude, sends the reluctant Moses and his spokesman Aaron to confront Pharaoh with a demand that he allow the Israelites to journey out into the desert to worship God. Moses not only has to convince Pharaoh to accede to what would be a seemingly foolhardy request, but also to convince the Israelites that their servitude is coming to an end.
The clash of wills between God and Pharaoh, who was considered a god by Egyptians, plays itself out in Pharaoh's unwillingness to the let the Israelites leave. Ten times in the text we learn that God intends to harden Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17) depriving him of the ability to assent to God's demand to free his Israelite slaves and ten times Pharaoh demonstrates his own stubbornness (7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15) by refusing to let the Israelites depart in spite of the suffering it is causing the Egyptians. The question seems to be, who will prevail? Will it be the God who demands liberation for his people and sets in motion the idea that all human beings – the citizen and the stranger both – should be treated with respect and dignity? Or will it be the xenophobic god-king Pharaoh for whom the stranger is detestable?
Often the tyrant is willing to allow his or her own people to suffer rather than submit to reason. To extinguish what Pharaoh saw as a rebellion he increased the oppression of the Hebrews. In response to plagues of increasing severity he refused to change course. In the next portion we read the story of the climactic plague of the death of the firstborn, which will finally convince Pharaoh to relent.
The Israelites witness this clash of wills time and again, perhaps believing that God's desire to free them will prevail over Pharaoh's desire to maintain the status quo only to have their hopes dashed. They share in the fear and frustration that Moses and Aaron must have experienced. Why is all this frustration and suffering necessary? The usual answer is that it is to demonstrate God's omnipotence to both the Israelites and the Egyptians.
As I read the Tanach, I see examples of God's power, but certainly not of omnipotence. Nowhere do I find that this type of philosophic description applies to the God we encounter in the pages of our sacred texts. The closest we come is in the first story of Creation where God creates the world through acts of speech (Genesis 1) and in the marvelous poetry of Psalms (for example, Psalm 8) and in the majestic portrayal of the Creator God in the whirlwind speech in Job (for example, Job 4:8-9). God the Creator might be described by the term omnipotent. But the God who is encountered in history and in God's relationships to human beings seems less than omnipotent. The image of God is malleable. God's interventions in history are episodic, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic.
Jack Miles, in his book God: A Biography,1 suggests that one way to read the Tanach is as God's biography. As he puts it, God is a character in his own book. God's relationship to the world – and especially God's relationship to Israel – seems designed to help humans meet their potential as beings created in the divine image and to become increasingly independent. At this moment what is required is a "Divine Liberator." The story reminds us that the path of liberation will be resisted by the oppressor at the expense of his or her own people, and often at the expense of his or her own life. The Divine Liberator acts through a human messenger who must have the capacity to stand up to the resistance of the oppressor and the resistance of the enslaved. The human messenger must feel empowered and supported. In Parashat Sh'mot, we see Moses move from attempting to refuse the commission to requiring Aaron's support as a spokesman. In Va-eira, we see Moses now has the courage and the faith to be his own spokesman.
The metaphors "a mighty hand" and "an outstretched arm" are used to support the concept that the God of Israel, who is also the God of all humankind, opposes oppression, and that those who oppose oppression can draw their strength from God's strength (see Exodus 3:19, 6:1, 6:6, 13:9, 32:11). The plagues, which we perceive as direct and deliberate acts of God and have been formulated by the biblical authors into a sequential narrative, can also be read as interpretative retelling of what seemed impossible--namely the liberation of Pharaoh's Israelite slaves. When such an extraordinary event occurs, we become aware of God's supportive Presence and the narrative is told retrospectively to mark the moments where the people felt God's Presence.
I remember feeling a sense of euphoria in June 1967 at the end of the Six Day War. In spite of all of the rational and empirical evidence to the contrary so many Jews from ultra-Orthodox to secular spoke of the events as involving the Divine. Eugene Borowitz, professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, spoke of it as the restoration of the exodus motif in Jewish history. When questions are framed theologically, the answers are theological. The question in June 1967 was, would God permit a second Shoah in our lifetime? The answer was, of course, a resounding "no." The Israel Defense Forces were at that moment conceived as the liberator, and the spiritual element was reinforced with the return of the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish sovereignty and the suggestive designation of the conflict as "the Six Day War." On six days God called out the work of the Creation; on the seventh day God rested. Today, the comparison between the liberation of Israelite slaves in the biblical Exodus and the liberation of modern-day Jews in the Six Day War may not resonate the same way it did in 1967. But the motif of the Divine Liberator who delivers resistance and liberation from oppression through a human messenger can still serve to explain the narrative of our liberation from Egypt and the clash between God and Pharaoh.
- Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995)
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue Evanston Illinois and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The Divine Liberator – what a fantastic image to draw our attention when reading this section of Exodus! Rabbi Knobel explores this view of God as a divine liberator passing on God's message through a human messenger. This idea plays beautifully in the story of our liberation from Egypt and the clash between God and Pharaoh, but I wonder how Jews today interact with this idea. Do most Jews today connect to God as a divine liberator?
"Theodicy" is defined as a "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil".1 Josh Barkin, in his book, God: Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate, says "For a lot of people, theodicy is the hardest question about God. That's probably for two reasons. First, people have a hard time thinking rationally about theology when human suffering is involved. Second, theodicy is one of those questions that doesn't lead to satisfying answers."2
Barkin draws us directly to the ongoing issue of fairness when dealing with suffering and liberation. The Egyptians, although portrayed as our enemy who had enslaved our people, are still humans suffering during these plagues. In the beginning of Joseph's story we are embraced by the Egyptians as Jacob moves his family to Egypt to escape famine. This may be one reason we struggle with the idea of what God does as a divine liberator. Why do some people, even some Jews, get liberated and not others?
When I teach about Passover, students ask why the Egyptians had to suffer and why would God bring about these plagues. They question and struggle with God as a divine liberator. The image of God liberating our Jewish ancestors is a powerful one that leads directly to my sitting here and typing today. Today's world is full of dictators, rebels, and presidents who use theology to explain their actions. Some even claim to be divine liberators. I struggle with who, and what, is right and wrong as we address any claims regarding divine liberation.
In our modern world we may not be comfortable viewing God as a divine liberator. But we can still learn from God's actions in our story, and we can still gain strength from studying about God's actions as we read Exodus or celebrate Passover.
- Definition of Theodicy, www.merriam-webster.com
- Josh Barkin, God: Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate (Los Angeles, CA: Torah Aura Productions, 2008), p. 73
Brad Cohen, RJE serves as director of education at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland.
Va-eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420-448; Revised Edition, pp. 379-400;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 331-354