The Torah portion this week is Va’era and is found in Exodus 6:2-9:35. In this parasha, God persuades an unwilling and hesitant Moses to take his brother Aaron, and ask Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go. Moses is already discouraged because, in visiting with his people and telling them about God’s impending deliverance, their spirits are so crushed by slavery that they don’t believe him. However, he follows God’s instructions. Pharaoh, who see himself as equal to the gods of Egypt, begins a power struggle which causes his undoing. Each time Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go, another plague hits, each more devastating than the first.
What do these plagues, or marvelous, terrible signs signify? Taken together, they point to God’s power over nature and history. The plagues are an education in divine justice, and the reversals they effect are intimately tied to the wrongs of Pharaoh and his people. First, God turns the Nile to blood, vividly demonstrating Egypt’s guilt in throwing Israelite babies to their watery graves. This sign serves to bring Pharaoh’s murderous program into the open, exposing the bloodshed. As the rest of the plagues unfold, other aspects of Egyptian injustice are made manifest. It was the Israelites’ growing numbers that Pharaoh had feared. Having instructed his people to challenge the Hebrew swarms, Pharaoh now must confront swarms of real vermin—frogs, lice, and flies. The heaped bodies of the dead frogs make Egypt stink, translating the moral rot of Egypt into the physical realm. Other plagues show up Pharaoh’s lies by reversing them or by making them concrete. Having treated people like beasts of burden, the Egyptians must now watch their true beasts fall to disease. Those who rained blows upon the backs of slaves are themselves pelted with hail. Those who chose to live in moral darkness are forced (in next week’s portion, Parashat Bo) to live in physical darkness.
In a society that refuses to acknowledge its victims’ humanity, God uses the full force of divine might to expose the injustice of Israel’s suffering. Justice begins with telling the truth about oppression. As humans, our methods are more limited, but our very capacity to see and name injustice and then work to make things just, links us to the Divine.