These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Parshat Va’era

Posted on January 2, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Dear Friends,

Much of the Book of Exodus, including last week’s Parshat Va’era, is about linking the beginnings of the world, and particularly the history of one family (i.e. Abraham and Sarah’s), their struggles and triumphs, to the development and history of a specific nation, soon to be known as Bnei Yisrael–the Jewish People. I always find it puzzling how we are thrown into the Book of Exodus. Imagine reading a book when 50 or so chapters have been dedicated to developing rich characters, delving into their successes and hardships and exploring the complexities of their relationships. And all of a sudden, after 50 chapters the book starts to talk about a large amorphous people and their will to survive under duress. I mean: what happened to all the wacky family dynamics and deeply personal existential crises?!

Nachmanides, a 12th-century Spanish rabbinic scholar, wrote in his introduction to Exodus that the book starts with the list of genealogies of those who came down to Egypt, even though they were recounted at the end of Genesis, to remind the reader that the beginning of redemption started in this family’s going down to Egypt. And furthermore, the exile in Egypt will not be fully complete or restored until this family–now a nation–returns back to “their place and the level/virtue of their forefathers”. Therefore, one might expect the Book of Exodus to make reference to the deeds (maybe misdeeds) and promises between God and the progenitors of the Jewish People, namely the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. In fact, there are a number of thematic and linguistic threads which are woven in and out of Genesis and find their way into Exodus.

One example of this, which I found quite striking, in in the beginning of our parsha (Exodus 6:6-8), as follows:

ו)  לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲנִי ה’, וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם; וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים

6) Therefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;

ז)  וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם, מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם

7) and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

ח)  וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת-יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב; וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה, אֲנִי ה 

8 ) And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the LORD.’

If these verses sound familiar, you’re not totally crazy! They’re used in the Pesach Seder to connote the “Four Stages or Expressions of Redemption” of the Exodus from Egypt.

  1. וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם
  2. וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם
  3. וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים
  4. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם, מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם

 But what strikes me most about these familiar verses was a part of these “Stages or Expressions of Redemption” which is often left out of our teaching of Pesach. I was always taught that these “Stages of Redemptions” began with “And I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (see #1 in Hebrew, above).

But the verse starts earlier than that and introduces these phases of Redemption from Egypt with the words “I am the LORD” or in Hebrew “אֲנִי ה“.  This phrase sets off incredible warning bells (!) and our biblical and literary sensitivities send us straight back to Parshat Lech Lecha.

In Parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham is commanded to leave his home in Ur Kasdim and move to Cana’an to serve God and become a great nation. However, upon Abraham’s fulfillment of this divine command, Abraham experiences a series of incredible difficulties (to put it mildly) such as having to seek refuge in Egypt due to a famine in Cana’an and almost losing Sarah there, battling a series of Canaanite kings and bearing witness to the destruction of Sodom and Amora. God realizes that these experiences have put a tremendous strain on Abraham’s faith, and in response God wants to reassure Abraham that ‘everything will work out’ for him and his family, as promised. In this reassuring promise, known as Brit ben Habetarim (I don’t want to get in to the name of this covenant), God says to Abraham:

ז)  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָיו:  אֲנִי ה’, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים–לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

7) And He said unto him: ‘I am the LORD that brought you out of Ur Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it.’ (Gen. 15:7)

This use of the phrase “I am the LORD” appears both in the beginning of the Exodus narrative, as well as in this reassuring covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis.

So, what is the connection between these two appearances of this phrase? After all, it seems to be a fairly common language that one might find in the Bible!

While this phrase does appear in many instances in the Bible, I think it is especially noteworthy that it is mentioned in the context of God reassuring Abraham in Parshat Lech Lecha and God reassuring the Jewish People (via Moses) in Parshat Va’era. Let me explain….

The Jewish People who are suffering under the rule of Pharaoh in Egypt are in desperate need of salvation. I imagine that building pyramids and living as an unwelcome minority under a large superpower like Egypt took a toll on the faith of the Jewish People in Egypt. Naturally, God realized that Moses, as God’s messenger, needed to revive the spirit of the Jewish People. But to do so, Moses needed to draw on their collective memory and remind them of the good ol’ days recounted to them by their parents and grandparents. The Jewish People in Egypt needed to hear that God had not forgotten about God’s covenant with the Abraham, their forefather. Therefore, God invokes the same language of the covenant of Brit ben Habetarim to lift the spirits of the Jews in Egypt and restore their faith in God and God’s recognition that they are still links in this chain of the Jewish People, which is spearheaded by Abraham.

Now, what is the take-away for us today?
How can we relate to these words leaving in a post-Egyptian exile world?

I think this section of the parsha compels us to ask ourselves how or to what extent do we see ourselves as links in the chain.
I must ask myself: How am I connected to Jewish tradition(s)? The Jewish past? And more specifically, how does my past inform my Jewish self in the present?

I bless us all that we are able to identify and hold on to our roots, so we can live intentional Jewish lives in the present!

Shavua tov,