Our portion, Va’era, starts and ends in the middle of the story. There is no exciting introduction to new characters: We know Moses, we know Aaron, we know Pharaoh. We know about slavery and oppression in Egypt. And when it ends, there is still Moses, still Aaron, still Pharaoh, and still slavery and oppression in Egypt, although Va’era presents the first seven plagues that God set upon Egypt in the hopes that Pharaoh would let the Children of Israel go. Va’era is in the middle and, I would assert, this makes the story all the more relevant to us, as we too are in the middle. Most of us have not had new people come into our lives this week and, hopefully, none have left us either.
We’re all in the middle of some form of slavery, all working toward freedom and redemption in our lives with the hope of something better. But, sometimes we get stuck. When Moses first approaches the Children of Israel, they don’t even want to leave Egypt. The Torah tells us that God instructed Moses to tell the people that God would soon free them. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex 6:9) Nahum Sarna in his commentary on Exodus teaches that the literal meaning of “their spirits crushed” – in the Hebrew, “mikotzer ru’ach” – is that they had a shortness of spirit, they had nothing left with which to motivate themselves. The Hebrew ru’ach, teaches Sarna, “is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will.” The Children of Israel were spiritually stuck. They were in the middle of something and they had neither the spirit nor the wherewithal to see the way out even with God’s divine leadership.
Sometimes it is hard to see the meaning of a particular event or series of events in our lives or the lives of our community and its hard to imagine that change can come. Last week, when I read Rabbi Joel Mosbacher’s D’var Torah in the Jewish Standard, he wrote that we need to find serious ways in which we can address challenges and “hold our officials accountable to make the world safer, rather than be complicit in a culture that throws its hands in the air, resigned that we can do nothing to curb violence.” He addressed gun violence and asked us not to stand idly by. We are in the middle of something and we seem to be unable or unwilling to get out of it, or maybe just plain old stuck. How many Sandy Hooks, Auroras, Tuscons, Virginia Techs, Columbines do we need to have? How many plagues need to rain down before we are ready to move to the next stage of the story? The Children of Israel were witnesses to the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts (or insects), cattle disease, boils and hail in Va’era; and they still weren’t spiritually ready to listen to Moses. It took a few more plagues on their task masters for them to be spiritually prepared to make the change to be ready to leave slavery and oppression and move toward redemption and hope.
I hope we are not stuck for long in the middle of the story of gun violence in schools and on streets. I hope we can find a way to come together in the community and in the United States so that the story moves from plagues and spiritual “stuck-ness” to a place of security and peacefulness. I wouldn’t want us to be comfortable in an environment where we acceptg gun violence as de rigueur, as the Children of Israel accepted their enslavement. I wouldn’t want us to be comfortable in an environment where our neighbors are plagued and we are not able to do anything about it. Of course the plagues in Va’era were sent down to our enemies, but even amongst the Egyptians there were innocent people who suffered.
We’re in the middle now. We don’t know how this story will end. I pray that the ending brings hope and security.