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Signs, Marvels, and the Source of All

  • Signs, Marvels, and the Source of All

    Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35
D'var Torah By: 

The Exodus narrative is central to our identity as Jews; every year, at the seder table, we retell and re-enact the escalating harassments and afflictions that made it possible for the Jews to escape slavery. This second portion in the Book of Exodus introduces the first seven "signs and marvels" (Exodus 7:3) that overwhelm the Egyptian ruler and his people and pave the way to the Israelites’ freedom. Each year, as we read Parashat Va-eira , we are puzzled by the many questions this portion raises about power and will, both divine and human.

The portion begins with God, once again, introducing the Divine Self to Moses. In Parashat Sh’mot , God spoke to Moses from the bush that was not consumed, making the connection with Moses’s ancestors explicit, and taking Moses as the primary divine emissary. God said, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh . . . This shall be My name forever" (Exodus 3:14–15). This portion, Va-eira , introduces a different name, the Tetragrammaton,(YHVH). "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name (Exodus 6:3). God continues, making explicit that this relationship with Israel is binding and that the time has come to make good on previous promises: "I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites . . . and I have remembered My covenant" (Exodus 6:5). God lays out the plan for rescue, redemption, and fulfillment of the pledges made to the ancestors with four powerful verbs that are often linked to the four cups of wine of the Passover seder: "I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God" (Exodus 6:6–7). Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, "God’s words are . . . a narrative of insistent, dynamic hope, with four verbs of redemption that lead the imagination from past to future" ( The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus [New York: Doubleday, 2001], p. 82).

The people, though, are worn down by the daily oppression and the deafening din of their enforced servitude: "But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage" (Exodus 6:9). The Hebrew for "spirits crushed" is kotzer ruach , which Robert Alter translates as "shortness of breath" ( The Five Books of Moses [New York: W. W. Norton, 2004], p. 341). We glimpse, for a moment, our beleaguered, mistreated ancestors, unable to respond to the man who has been chosen to help guide them out of their misery. Their inability to hear Moses prefigures Pharaoh’s deafness to both Moses and God, who will ultimately redeem Israel.

Moses pleads with God not to send him to Pharaoh. As Zornberg points out, in Exodus 6:10–12, Moses uses a classical rabbinic argument, which might be paraphrased as follows: "If the Israelites, who are powerless before the whip of their oppressors, will not listen to me, how much the less will the most powerful man in Egypt listen to me, (who was born in a slave’s hut), who cannot speak without stumbling?" ( The Particulars of Rapture , p. 82). Moses repeats his hesitation about being "impeded of speech" (Exodus 6:30), and God answers, "See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh . . . " (Exodus 7:1). At the very moment that Moses is feeling least able to confront the one who is considered divine by the Egyptian people, God reverses their positions, as if reminding Moses that he, like all humans, is created in God’s image, and that Pharaoh, like all mortals, is created from dust and ashes.

God continues to speak to Moses, describing the roles that Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh will play in the unfolding drama that God is directing. Exodus 7:1–6 sets up the rest of the portion, establishing the God of the Hebrews as the ultimate source of power and authority in this narrative, Moses and Aaron as those who speak for God, and Pharaoh, the sovereign of Egypt, as a failed leader. But this preview does not undermine the suspense of the subsequent scenes; rather, the Torah’s artistry in crafting this story is breathtaking in the dynamic tension sustained and the richness of the telling.

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary , Rachel Havrelock names the final sections of this portion (Exodus 7:8–9:35) "Seven Signs and Marvels."She explains, "Words like 'signs’ ( otot ), 'marvels’ ( moftim ), and 'wonders’ ( nifle’ot ) describe the events that devastate the land and attack the routine affairs of ordinary Egyptians" (ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], pp. 331ff.). A prologue (Exodus 7:8–13) sets the pattern of God telling Moses how to approach Pharaoh, of Moses and Aaron acting as God’s agents, and of Pharaoh responding. At first, Pharaoh summons the wise ones, sorcerers, and magicians to prove that his power is as great as that of the Eternal. While the magicians are able, like Aaron, to turn their rods into serpents, Aaron’s serpent swallows them all (Exodus 7:10–12). And when the signs became more complex, the magicians continue in their efforts to "copy" God’s marvels, turning water into blood and sending frogs across the land. Ironically, and tragically, their competitive attempts to prove their power increase the severity of the escalating blows to Egypt. These "seers" are so blinded by their own rivalry with Moses and Aaron that they even attempt to turn harmless dust into an infestation of lice. When they are unsuccessful, they concede defeat and confront Pharaoh saying, "This is the finger of God!" (Exodus 8:15).

As God has foretold, Pharaoh’s stubbornness is indeed his undoing. The ruler who could not hear the cries of his slaves is deaf to the warnings of their God, as delivered by Moses and Aaron, God’s spokespersons. Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go after the Nile turns to blood and after the infestation of frogs. He negotiates with Moses about removing the frogs and then becomes stubborn and does not listen. His own magicians acknowledge God’s power, but Pharaoh remains rigid. When insects swarm and the Israelites’ neighborhoods are spared, Pharaoh again negotiates with Moses, but, "Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go" (Exodus 8:28). The ruler of Egypt is unmoved by the cattle disease that destroys his country’s livestock. The soot that becomes boils afflicts Pharaoh’s soothsayers, and they are "unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation" (Exodus 9:11). For the first time, the text says, "But the Eternal stiffened the heart of Pharaoh" (Exodus 9:12). Was God’s hand around Pharaoh’s heart throughout each of these trials?

The narrative takes a decisive turn, as God feeds Moses the words to tell Pharaoh about the final blows that will befall both the leader and all his people. And in another first, the word "plague," mageifah , is used, as God makes explicit that this campaign has been against Pharaoh as divine monarch of Egypt: "For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person . . . in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world" (Exodus 9:14).

As the portion ends, we may be troubled by what we interpret as the ruthlessness of a God who seems to need to triumph over a mortal who was unlucky enough to be born into the Egyptian dynastic line. Havrelock writes of Pharaoh’s repeated refusals, "Pharaoh’s opposition entails a clash of wills as well as a contest between the pantheon of Egypt and the lone God of Israel. Biblical narrative renders the victor indisputable and the powers of the Egyptian gods obsolete," ( The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 337). As this portion comes to a close, God, introduced at the beginning of this portion with a new name that points both to the past and to the future, is established as a Sovereign whose power transcends not only time, but also geography.

The narrative continues and the Israelite slaves gradually learn to listen to the One who will become their Redeemer. As they cross the sea to freedom in Parashat B’shalach , they proclaim that their God has no equal with these triumphant words: "Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials; / Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!" (Exodus 15:11). But before their mouths and hearts open to the Holy One, they—and every Egyptian—will be challenged by signs and marvels that establish a Power unequaled on earth or in the heavens, a Power that demands that slavery cease. Would that we moderns were able to hear—and act on—this message.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell , Ph.D., serves as the director of the URJ Pennsylvania Council and the Federation of Reform Synagogues of Greater Philadelphia.

Interpreting the Signs and Marvels
Davar Acher By: 
Mira Wasserman

As Rabbi Elwell mentions above, Torah identifies the devastating plagues that God unleashes on Pharaoh as "signs and marvels" (Exodus 7:3). What do these marvelous, terrible signs signify? Taken together, they point to God’s power over nature and history. Considered one by one, each plague bears its own message, obeying a distinctive logic. The plagues are an education in divine justice, and the reversals they effect are intimately tied to the wrongs of Pharaoh and his people.

First, God turns the Nile to blood, vividly demonstrating Egypt’s guilt in throwing Israelite babies to their watery graves. This sign serves to bring Pharaoh’s murderous program into the open, exposing the bloodshed.

As the rest of the plagues unfold, other aspects of Egyptian injustice are made manifest. It was the Israelites’ growing numbers that Pharaoh had feared. Having instructed his people to challenge the Hebrew swarms, Pharaoh now must confront swarms of real vermin—frogs, lice, and flies. The heaped bodies of the dead frogs make Egypt stink, translating the moral rot of Egypt into the physical realm. Other plagues show up Pharaoh’s lies by reversing them or by making them concrete. Having treated people like beasts of burden, the Egyptians must now watch their true beasts fall to disease. Those who rained blows upon the backs of slaves are themselves pelted with hail. Those who chose to live in moral darkness are forced (in next week’s portion, Parashat Bo) to live in physical darkness.

In a society that refuses to acknowledge its victims’ humanity, God uses the full force of divine might to expose the injustice of Israel’s suffering. Justice begins with telling the truth about oppression. As humans, our methods are more limited, but our very capacity to see and name injustice links us to the Divine.

Rabbi Mira Wasserman is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, Bloomington, Indiana.

Reference Materials: 

Va-eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary , pp. 420-448; Revised Edition, pp. 379–400
Haftarah, Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 696-699; Revised Edition, pp. 401-404

When do we read Va-eira

2020, January 25
28 Tevet, 5780
2022, January 1
28 Tevet, 5782
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