Parshat Va’era — Rabbi Riskin (text)

Efrat, Israel – “Therefore say to the children of Israel:  ‘I am the Lord, and I shall remove you from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be a God to you…And I shall bring you to the land which I swore to give…to you as a heritage… ‘” (Ex. 6:6-8).

This most stirring passage presents the four (actually five!) expressions of redemption, which are the source for our four (actually five) cups of Passover Seder wine (the fifth referring to the Divine promise to “bring you to the land”).

And this Biblical text tells us the coming attractions when it speaks of God’s redemption by means of His “outstretched arm and with great judgments.”  It is referring to the supernatural ten plagues against the Egyptians, the awesome wonder of the splitting of the Reed Sea, which drowned the Egyptians and enabled the Hebrews to escape freely onto dry land, and the Revelation at Sinai, when God took the Hebrews to Himself as His covenantal people.

As we shall see, the expressions of Divine Redemption set the stage of contrast between our Biblical history and Post-Biblical history. In the earlier period, God played the star role (as it were) in effectuating our national freedom and in establishing our  national constitution to form us as a “holy nation and kingdom of Kohen-teachers” to all humanity (Ex. 19:6), whereas during our subsequent second commonwealth (Talmudic times) and Post-Talmudic history leading up to Redemption, it is Israel who must take the responsibility and assume proactive leadership as God’s senior partners in the international arena.

The Talmudic Tractate Shabbat (88a) teaches as follows:  “And they stood at the bottom of (tahtit) the mountain” (Ex 19:17). Rabbi Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said, ‘This verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, hung the mountain over them like a barrel, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah it will be good; if not, there shall be your grave!”  Rabbi Aha bar Jacob said, “This constitutes serious grounds for protesting the validity of our acceptance of the Torah!”  (If our obligation to uphold the Torah today harks back to our acceptance of Torah four thousand years ago at Sinai which was based on duress, our commitment then and now is not binding!).

How can Rabbi Abdimi logically—and textually—maintain that God “forced us” into accepting Torah?  The Biblical chapter relating the Sinaitic Covenant clearly states: “The entire nation responded in one voice and said, ‘all the words which the Lord has spoken we shall do'” (Ex 19:8), and then, for emphasis, once again, “Everything which the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall internalize.” (Ex. 24: 7).  The Sages dare not “remove a Biblical verse from its literal and contextual meaning!”

What Rabbi Abdimi may be referring to is the supernatural, Divinely orchestrated context within which the Revelation was placed:  the outstretched arm of God that had wrought the judgments of the plagues and the Reed Sea upon the Egyptians, along with “the thunder, the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking furnace” (Ex 19:16) which accompanied God’s words.  Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot to Shabbat 88a s.v. moda’a) goes so far as to say that no covenants agreed upon by Israel after hearing Divine Speech can be seen as voluntary commitments; “God’s awesome communication in itself creates a situation of duress,” it removes the individual’s uninhibited power of free choice.

The question then remains; are we or are we not obligated to keep the commandments of Torah?  In the previously cited Talmudic passage, Rava explains why we remain obligated:  “Despite the (coercion at Sinai), Israel freely accepted the Torah in the days of Ahashverosh, as it says, ‘the Jews confirmed and received’ (Esther 9:27) that is, they confirmed then what they had previously received (at Sinai)”

Allow me to explain.  During the Biblical period, Israel was in diapers, slowly advancing to bar-mitzvah.  It was essential that our Parent-in-Heaven assume center stage by establishing our status as a free nation and communicating His Torah as our Divine Constitution and Mission Statement.

As we developed, from the Second Commonwealth and onwards, we were given the charge to complete an incomplete world and also to complete an incomplete Torah which had to remain relevant through changing times and circumstances (the Oral Law, interpretations by the Sages of every age).

From then on, we became responsible to lead ourselves and the world in the path toward redemption.

The story of Esther took place and was written just as the period of the second commonwealth was about to begin.  God’s name does not appear in the Scroll of Esther; He has a significant role, but He remains behind the curtain, and the crucial decisions must be made by the human participants: Esther, Mordecai and Haman.   The victory of Torah Jewry over Persian assimilation, which takes place in the Scroll of Esther demonstrates the new age which is dawning.  The Scroll of Esther confirmed the Jewish acceptance of Torah commitment as an act of free choice even without the overwhelming Divine Presence taking center stage.

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