Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Va’era is a direct continuation of the stories related in the previous chapters of the Book of Shemot (Exodus). In last week’s reading, the Almighty dispatches Moshe with a message for Pharaoh: tell Pharaoh to release the Jewish People from Egypt. But Pharoah refuses, while increasing the burden on the Jewish slaves, so that “the work will become more difficult for the men, so that they must be completely involved in it, instead of engaging in falsehoods.” (5:9).
Pharaoh believes that the Jews have too much free time, and that consequently, they spend that free time dreaming, in vain, of a possible release from bondage. He instructs his officers to create tougher work conditions. Then, Pharaoh won’t suffice with the strenuous building tasks already imposed on the Jewish People; he also orders them to gather their own raw materials to create bricks. Moshe expresses his frustration over his first failed mission as a leader acting on behalf of the nation, exclaiming: “…why have You harmed this People? Why have You sent me?” (5:22).
This week’s parsha begins with God’s answer to Moshe. He promises Moshe that in spite of everything, the Jewish People’s redemption is at hand, and that Moshe would be the one to lead the people out of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land. Moshe transmits this message to the people, but they refuse to listen “because of shortness of spirit and hard work” (6:9). How could anyone barely surviving under the back-breaking yoke of the Egyptians pay heed to any talk of equality and freedom?
The text then continues to relate what God tells Moshe: Moshe is to go back to Pharaoh and command him to release the Jewish People. This time, however, Moshe is unyielding, and argues further: “Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:12).
These verses do not report how God responds to Moshe. Instead, they continue laconically: “And God spoke to Moshe and Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” (6:13).
This appears to be a “dialogue” between two people talking past one another. Moshe, in no uncertain terms, tells God that there is no one to talk to. God, undaunted, as it were, commands Moshe to “go speak to the Children of Israel and to Pharaoh.”
Our sages suggest two ways of looking at these verses. One viewpoint is expressed by our sages in the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5). Those sages explain that this verse is an implicit criticism of some of the prevailing Jewish elites of the day. Not all Jews had suffered in Egypt. According to the sages, some Jews had themselves subjugated their Jewish brethren in Egypt. God tells Moshe that it is unthinkable to demand that Pharaoh agree to free the Jewish People as long as Jews were enslaving other Jews.
Moshe couldn’t go to Pharaoh with a guilty conscience, and demand something of Pharaoh that he couldn’t demand of his own people. This is why the verse emphasize that Moshe needed to speak to the Jewish people first, and only then approach Pharaoh.
We cannot demand that non-Jews perform a certain task if we ourselves are incapable of doing it ourselves. This may have also been the reason that the Jews hadn’t believed Moshe and hadn’t heeded his call. Could he succeed in convincing the higher echelons of Jewish society before taking his demands to Pharaoh?
Rashi, the greatest of the Torah commentators, proposes an alternative understanding of these verses. He explains, expressing his great love for the Jewish people: “He commanded concerning the Children of Israel to lead them calmly and to be patient with them.”
According to this explanation, God directly responds to Moshe’s claim that no one was interested in listening to him. Although this could have been Moshe’s first impression when speaking to the Jewish People, his first lesson about leadership is to have patience, and plenty of it. The Jews need to be spoken to gently, and Moshe needed to learn to tolerate them. The Jews resemble the prickly pear: a fruit that is rough on the outside, but rather sweet on the interior. God commands Moshe to lead the Jewish people with calmness and acceptance, difficult as it may be. It takes time to internalize this lesson, and requires a great degree of patience and serenity.