We all know the ten plagues, which we recite on Seder night. This Parsha contains the first seven: Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals (or flies), pestilence, boils and burning hail. The confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh with his magicians is full of high drama. So much devastation is brought upon Egypt that, as we see at the beginning of the next Parsha, before the eighth plague strikes, Pharaoh’s servants say to him, “Let them go… Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?”
But before the plagues begin, Hashem fills Moshe in on some Jewish history, reiterating the part about the promises He has made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but never fulfilled. The name of the Parsha “Va’era”, means “And I appeared”. It is very similar to the name of a previous Parsha in Bereshit, “Vayera”, and He appeared. That was when Abraham was recovering from his circumcision and G-d sends him three angels, and chats to him about the destruction of Sodom. G-d has appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and is now talking quite extensively with him. This makes Moses the fourth Jewish individual (after pre-Jewish Adam and Noah) mentioned in the Torah who G-d actually ‘appeared’ to or spoke to. Moses is vitally important to G-d’s carrying out His promise or Covenant (Brit) with the forefathers, but Moses needs Aaron as well, for this well-orchestrated two-man act.
At the end of the last Parsha we see a tragic scene of Jewish slaves frantically scouring the countryside to gather their own straw for keeping up with the brick quota. So that when Moses goes back to them with his new message from G-d, they are too exhausted to listen. Interestingly, a word from last week’s parsha will recur several times in another context. When the miserable Jewish taskmasters complained that Moses and Aaron had ruined their lives by upsetting the status quo and having the chutzpah to upset Pharaoh, they said “you’ve made us stink in Pharaoh’s opinion: “hivashtem et rechenu”. This week, we will see that the dead fish in the bloody Nile and the piles of dead frogs made Egypt stink. “Vayivash haye’or”, “Vayivash ha’aretz”.
It’s interesting that the first two plagues disrupt the Nile, which was one of the gods of Egypt, and essential to the health of the economy. The third plague, lice or fleas, began when Aaron hit the dust of the ground. This is the first plague that Pharaoh’s magicians could not replicate, so they exclaim: This is the finger of G-d. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a fascinating discussion on this in his book ‘Covenant and Conversation’. He explains that, like Pharaoh’s magicians, many people today believe in “‘the god of the gaps’. This holds that a miracle is something for which we cannot yet find a scientific explanation… The more we can explain scientifically or control technologically, the less need we have for faith. As the scope of science expands, the place of G-d progressively diminishes to vanishing point…” But, says Sacks, believers do not need miracles which defy nature to prove G-d’s existence. G-d “is in nature itself. Science does not displace G-d.” And “The primary way.. we encounter G-d is not through miracles but through.. Torah”.
With the fourth plague we see something else new: a differentiation between the Egyptians and Israelites. From now on, the plagues will not take place in Goshen, where the Israelites are living. For the plague of ‘shchin’, boils, Moses takes soot of the furnace “piach kivshan” and throws it “hashamayma”, towards the heaven. The word “kivshan” is important, as Egypt is elsewhere referred to as the fiery furnace, Kivshan ha’esh, or melting pot, in which the Israelites needed to reside and then be released from in order to fulfil the destiny G-d had planned for them. Pharaoh loses his support staff in this plague, as the chartumim (magicians) were afflicted by the boils. The hail is also brought by Moses raising his hand to heaven. With the warning of the hail, the Egyptians were divided into those who feared the word of G-d and those who didn’t. All were warned to bring their livestock and people inside so they would not be struck down by the burning hail, the like of which had never been seen before in Egypt. It devastated the crops as well, including the flax which was the source of the linen industry of ancient Egypt.
This week, with bushfires ravaging so much of Australia, many must be wondering what more can be done to stop the devastation in this country. Much sympathy goes to those who have lost property, and commendation to the brave firefighters who still battle this natural disaster.