The Torah portion this week is Vaera and is found in Exodus 6:2-9:35. In this parasha, we continue with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. 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. Taken together, they illustrate God’s power over nature and history.
What do these plagues, or marvelous, terrible signs teach us? The plagues are an education in divine justice, and the reversals they affect 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 refused to acknowledge its victims’ humanity, we see God using the full force of divine might to expose the injustice of Israel’s suffering. What we learn from this is that justice begins with telling the truth about oppression. As humans, we often see and experience inequities and injustice. We may not always feel powerful, or that we can make a difference. We may even become discouraged as did Moses. We may not have the power to command nature or chart history, but our capacity to see and name injustice and then work to make things just, links us to the Divine. And if we join together and persevere, our cumulative efforts over the course of time can make effectual change.