Parshat Va’era includes the first seven of the ten plagues. And while I rejoice at the Israelites’ eventual exodus from a life of slavery in Egypt, I wonder about the extent of the damage to Egyptian society needed in order for them to finally do so. Wouldn’t one or two plagues have been enough? Why ten?
Our major characters are Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, God, and the Israelites. God has heard the cries of the Israelites and has decided (finally) to take them out of Egypt. Moses is God’s choice to lead them out of slavery, even though he insists he doesn’t speak well enough to lead the people. God doesn’t accept his efforts to withdraw, and appoints his brother Aaron to speak for him. Together they beseech Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt in order to offer sacrifices to God in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses, and is punished with a plague, then begs Moses to call off the plague and agrees to let the Israelites go, only to change his mind as soon as the plague is called off. Ten times this cycle is repeated, until finally Pharaoh can’t bear the devastation of his country any longer, and he allows them to finally leave Egypt (and even then he tries to recapture them afterward).
Why did it take so long for Pharaoh to let them go? Why did it take so much destruction for him to give the Israelites their freedom? The Torah gives us a few answers. First, Pharaoh’s heart is mentioned 20 times in the Torah. Pharaoh stiffens his heart, sometimes God even stiffens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh’s heart becomes heavier and heavier. What was Pharaoh afraid of? Why was he so insistent? One might argue that he wanted the Israelites to continue as slaves. One could also argue that he was afraid of change. I think his problem goes beyond that. I think his heart was closed to God’s presence. His heart was too full of arrogance and ego for him to even recognize the suffering of the Israelites. He thought he was in control of everything – there was no power greater than him. In order to really open his heart to God, he’d have to break his heart open and shatter his ego.
I think the same is true for us. All too often we hide behind our own masks, our illusions of control. When confronted with our misdeeds, we rush to fix the problem and make it go away. We make a half-hearted apology and move on. We’re holding on so tightly to our own masks, we can’t bear to see our own flaws before us. And yet, if we want to come close to God, we must let go of our defenses. If our heart is full of pride and self-importance, there is no room for God. Psalm 34 teaches that God is near to the broken-hearted, and uplifts those whose spirits are crushed. Do we dare let go of our ego, our arrogance, our stories, and our pain? It takes a great courage to surrender into God’s loving embrace. Pharaoh couldn’t do it. Can we?
The Torah teaches that God heard the cries of the Israelites. Some commentators imply that it was only when they cried out to God that God decided to rescue them. Even in the midst of the slavery, they thought they could save themselves. Or they simply gave up all hope of freedom. But when they finally called out, God heard their cries and liberated them from slavery and took them on a journey of hope and healing.
May we be willing today to cry out to God from our own narrow places. May we be brave enough to admit our own weaknesses and ask God for help. May we find holy companions to support us on our journeys of healing. May God take us out of our own narrow places into the promised land of freedom, joy, love, and infinite possibilities. Shabbat Shalom.