Shabbat Va’era 5769
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Shabbat Va’era 5769

The Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes, Reform

One week ago, people buzzed about “the miracle in the Hudson!” After hundreds of hours training for such an emergency, the pilot of Flight 1549 did exactly what was needed. The flight crew did precisely what they were taught. So, too, did the police, firefighters, and ferry captains. The passengers behaved responsibly – no one panicked, no one pushed another out of the way. All survived. A miracle?

Created in God’s image, each of us is infused with a soul. That soul allows, enables, and inspires each of us to rise above our fears and perform miracles. “The miracle in the Hudson” was that each person’s soul took hold instead of taking flight.

Parshat Va’era describes the first seven plagues rained upon the Egyptians. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why were 10 plagues necessary? Why didn’t God simply airlift the Israelites to Mount Sinai?

Imagine the first plague, 21st-century-style: turning on the kitchen sink and blood pouring out. A shower of blood. Swimming pools, ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers: all blood-filled. Wouldn’t you be convinced that a higher power was at work?

Frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail…. With each plague, a subtle shift occurred. Aaron turned the Nile into blood, and Pharaoh’s magicians did the same – revealing that they cared nothing for their own people. Did the Egyptians take note? Pharaoh’s heart stiffened because he saw that Aaron’s trick was duplicable. We discern Pharaoh’s utter disdain for his people, Egyptian and Israelite alike.

Frogs covered the land, and the magicians applied spells to intensify the plague. But when Aaron wrought lice upon the land, “the magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, and they could not,” (Exodus 8:14). Stunned, the magicians cried out to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh refused to listen because God hardened his heart.

From here on forth, Pharaoh was convinced, over and again; yet God intervened. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

The fourth plague brought swarms of insects against the Egyptians, but the region of Goshen where the Israelites lived was untouched. This was the first time that the Israelites were protected. This was the first opportunity for the Egyptians and the Israelites to notice: Someone was watching over these Israelite slaves. The fifth plague went further: pestilence killed all the Egyptian cattle yet none of the Israelite livestock. The sixth plague intensified the distinction: boils broke out upon all the Egyptians, including such severe inflammation upon the magicians that they could not even confront Moses. Yet no Egyptian cried out to Pharaoh, “Let them go!”

The seventh plague could have turned the tide. Moses warned of a catastrophic hailstorm, advising all to bring their livestock indoors for protection. He gave everyone the opportunity to survive if only they would listen. God’s power was evident; many Egyptians hearkened. But no Egyptian protested against Pharaoh; each attended only to him or herself. Their refusal to think beyond “self” caused them to suffer the final plague and then to drown in the sea.

Puzzlingly, on his own, Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites leave – so why did God harden his heart again? (Here, Va’era concludes.) And, why didn’t God scoop up the Israelites and fly them to Mount Sinai?

Pharaoh’s permission wouldn’t make the Israelites truly free. Their mentality needed to evolve. The slaves had to imagine their own freedom, to be emboldened to live. The change that was needed was not one from leadership, but from the masses.

When Flight 1549 fell into the river, even if professionals had done all that was necessary, had one passenger rebelled, been selfish, drunk, or insubordinate, disaster would have ensued. Surely one passenger became anxious; a seatmate must have calmed him or her. Leaders were trained, but ordinary people rose to the occasion, doing exactly what they needed to do.

Perhaps this is an aspect of Israel that is so precious and valuable to us. In addition to its formal government, Israel is a nation of leaders, of thinkers, and activists. Fighting in the national army imbues each Israeli with ownership of the future.

The United States of America, our extraordinary nation, is under new leadership; President Obama, his cabinet, and our congressional leaders will devote their expertise and love to our world. Va’era teaches that even with their leadership, it is up to us, each and every American, to do what needs to be done. We must act – and live – responsibly, in matters of the economy, the environment, the impoverished, Israel, Darfur … in all areas of our world’s woes. The Egyptians never understood that the Israelites’ suffering was theirs, too; we pray for the wisdom to respond to the world’s pain as our own.

Since Egypt, we have cherished our freedom and the promise of our future. Since Sinai, we have deepened our study of Torah – knowledge applied to life. The covenant is a partnership that marks the privilege of furthering God’s creation. We were chosen not merely to receive, but to give. The great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that a Jew takes a leap of action, not a leap of faith. Each of us becomes the miracle.

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