Parshat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Last week, as we began the Book of Exodus, we read anew about how the People of Israel became enslaved by Pharaoh. Their conditions worsened with time, but Moshe, chosen by God to speak to the king’s heart, hoped that the despotic ruler would allow the Israelites to leave his land, even if for just a few days, so that they could worship God.
Alas, his attempts to appeal to the king’s good graces were in vain, and if that were not enough, it achieved the opposite effect! Pharaoh’s angry response is, “Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about false matters” [Ex. 5:9].
Now, he said, the Jews would be forced to work so hard that they would not have any time to even think about freedom. The people get the message, but instead of rising up against their cruel oppressors, they turn their anger toward Moses, the one who had announced their impending redemption!
The representatives of the enslaved people reproach Moses, exclaiming, “May God look upon you and judge, for you have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us” [ibid., v. 21]. He listens, and then, in exasperation, calls out to God, “Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?” [ibid., v. 22].
The portion of Shemot concludes with God’s response: “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land” [ibid., 6:1]. We would have expected Moses to react in some way, yet he remains silent. Perhaps he was simply trying to process the situation.
Our portion, Va’era, begins with another message from God to Moses, in which the Almighty presents a brief version of Jewish history, adding the promise he made to our ancestors, and his strong will to bring His people back to their land. He adds that he has heard the anguished groans emanating from the parched throats of the Israelites [ibid., v. 2-8].
Moses, however, had heard this lecture before, at the burning bush [ibid., 3:8], and we can safely assume that he had already conveyed all of this to the people. Why, then, would Moses be any more successful this time, when his last attempt resulted in utter failure? If there is a new message in God’s words – we must attempt to get to the bottom of it.
Moses is already convinced; the problem is that Pharaoh and the Jewish people need to be persuaded, and neither party is very receptive to the message. One crucial difference between this speech and the one that Moses heard near the burning bush is the omission of any mention of the Land of Israel as being flowing with milk and honey. In contrast, here God describes Israel as a land that “I raised my hand to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Was the land was no longer flowing with milk and honey?
Would it not have been enticing to tell the Jews in Egypt about the honey, which would sweeten the bitterness of Egypt? Here, however, the Torah underscores the fact that Hashem would redeem the nation with great miracles, and that the entire purpose of this exodus would be for them to know that “I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” [ibid., 6:7]. Why was this not mentioned at the burning bush?
Perhaps there is a two-fold message concealed in this difference. Moses was living relatively comfortably in Midian with his wife and distinguished father-in-law, Jethro, far removed from the suffering of Egyptian slavery. Being in this relaxed setting, Moses had the ability to appreciate the message that the Israelites would eventually reach a land flowing with milk and honey. And upon encountering the Almighty, Moses did not need further persuasion that it was God that would take His people out of Egypt.
Yet as Moses considers how to address the battered, enslaved people, collapsing under the yoke of bondage in Egypt, talk of some abstract land flowing with milk and honey would not have resonated, since the nation had never experienced any such thing. All the people wanted was a bit of rest and some peace and quiet after years of constant torture. To those in such a situation, a leader must first focus on ending their suffering and servitude.
Therefore, God’s second address is intended to teach Moshe how to convey a message in a way that the listeners – slaves – can truly absorb. This suffering people is looking for something to hold on to, and it desperately needs something to believe in. You need to remind people about the fact that there is a world that God rules in which suffering does not exist. Do not think that the entire world is evil; there is hope, difficult as that is to see now.
There is another dimension to this, as well. It is not just that the people had never tasted milk and honey. We are attempting to appeal to the most basic of human emotions: returning home, to our homeland, the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even if life is difficult in Israel, and even if the terror attacks we face here are no less severe than the ones in Paris, Brussels, and New York, Israel is still our home, so we ask and urge Jews in the diaspora to return to us – to return to Israel.
God is telling Moses to convey the simplest of messages: the Land of Israel is their birthright. The time has come for their redemption. This is also how we should approach Jews anywhere in the world today, by saying to them that your time of redemption has come. It is time for you to come home – not necessarily because it is any safer here, but because this is the only place in the world that is truly ours. It our home, and it is yours, as well.