Va’era in the Age of Corona: Who are the True Heroes of the Exodus?
Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum from 1993-1995. She is currently the Tanakh department chair at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY and the founder of Makom B’Siach, an immersive adult learning program at SAR.
Parshat Va’era begins with God’s second call to Moshe. Echoing the scene at the burning bush (Shmot 3), God again declares to Moshe His plan to redeem the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. Earlier, the mission was framed as a rescue mission: the people were suffering unjustly, and they needed to be saved. These terms would have easily resonated with Moshe, the emerging social justice warrior of chapter 3. But here, in chapter 6, God adds an additional explanation, thus unveiling the fullness of the mission. These people, suffering in Egypt, descend from Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, with whom God established a covenant. Redeeming them now from Egypt would fulfill that long-ago promise to the forefathers.
While the covenant and the redemptive act fundamentally belong to God, Moshe is nevertheless invited into a partnership with God. Much like the covenantal partnership extended to Avraham, God chooses to act in history through human agency; He does not go at it alone. In the biblical account, Moshe plays a central role in negotiating the safe passage of the Jewish people out of slavery. Beginning with his early pleas to Pharoah, Moshe’s presence is felt in nearly every moment of the narrative. He does not only take them out of Egypt; he shapes them as they emerge as a nation. He is their teacher, guide, arbiter, parent. Moreover, he bridges the gaping chasm between God and His people; Moshe navigates a critical space that holds all the pieces together.
It is puzzling, then, that the Haggadah downplays Moshe’s role almost entirely, while declaring in unequivocal terms that God is the sole redeemer from Egypt.
“And the Lord took us out of Egypt” – not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but [directly by] the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, as it is stated (Exodus 12:12); “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord.”
On the night of the seder, the narrative arc bends directly towards our praise for God’s might and compassion. And there are good reasons for focusing ourselves as such on Pesach. But on all other nights – or shabbatot– when we read the story in Exodus, we confront multiple heroes responsible for the Exodus. In addition to Moshe, Shifra, Puah, Bat-Pharaoh, Miriam, Yochved, and Aharon each play a central role in helping to resist Pharoah’s death narrative. Each of them, in their own way, embraces the possibility of a way out of the darkness of Egypt. Working in tandem, and all on their own, each of these named heroes shines a light forward that steadily yields to the dramatic exodus, where it was finally clear to all: God is the Savior of the Jewish people.
All these heroic, extraordinary individuals are evident in the text. But just beneath the surface of the text, lurks a hidden narrative of everyday people, engaging in seemingly mundane activities, whose individual and collective behavior is responsible for the redemption. I am referring here to the “righteous women” of the Exodus, about whom the Midrash tells many inspiring stories. These are the women behind the multiple births recounted in Exodus 1:7:
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
In the Midrash Tanhuma’s account:
Our sages said: They bore twins. Others say: Six were formed in a single womb. Others say: twelve were born from one womb. And still others contend six hundred thousand.
Commenting on verse 7, the midrash offers a series of escalating suggestions as to the number of babies in each birth. The first three opinions hover somewhere within the range of plausibility: two, six, 12. Each position correlates to the number of verbs (six) or to the plural form of the verb, and serves to explain, implicitly, how soon enough Pharoah will look at the Israelites and suddenly see a grotesque swarm, overtaking his landscape.
But the final position — 600,000 — signals a departure from the plausible to an entirely different realm. That each woman had 600,000 babies in each birth is not only physically impossible, it does not even make mathematical sense. 600,000, of course, is the number of all the males who left Egypt to constitute the Israelite nation! Instead, this midrashic suggestion must be read in another way. The midrash signals that with each pregnancy, every Israelite woman bore the potential for the entire nation. In other words, the commitment to conceive, birth, and raise even a single child, despite the all-consuming darkness of slavery, reflected enough bravery, insight, and heroism to be held responsible for the entirety of the nation.
When all is said and done, and we can finally emerge from the darkness of 2020, who will our heroes be? How will we tell the story of this exodus? This story we are living through, of darkness to light, of locked-in, closed-in “meitzarim” months, working our way to openness, to freedom.. how will we tell it? Who will be our heroes? Who will we hold up as responsible for the darkest parts, as well as the redemptive parts? We will surely tell stories about the doctors and nurses, the frontline workers, the human hands and hearts that pushed to the limits in order to safeguard our lives. We will also, I think, eventually know and laud the names of the scientists who defied the odds and created our life-saving vaccines. But will we forget the individual sacrifices, the anguish, the heartache, the bravery? Can we hold all our stories?