Parashat Va-era

Exodus 6:2–9:35

January 21, 2012 / 26 Tevet 5772

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS.

A Study in Repetition 

This week's Torah portion, Va-era, describes the events leading up to the Exodus. It opens with God's statement to Moshe that He will take the Israelites out of Egypt and bring them to the land He promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 6:2–4). As a first step, God sends Moshe to Pharaoh to ask for freedom for the Israelite slaves. The next section presents Moshe's lineage in great detail (6:13–29). Moshe then says to God that Pharaoh will not listen to him because he is speech-impaired (v. 30). God tells Moshe that Aaron will be his spokesman (7:1–2). God adds that if Pharaoh asks for a sign, Moses should say to Aaron, "take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh," and then, God indicates, it will turn into a snake (7:9). The Torah goes on to say that when Moshe and Aaron successfully executed God's commands, the Egyptian magicians were able to match their deeds. A skeptical Pharaoh sends the two brothers away. God then tells Moses to appear before the Egyptian ruler in the morning, when he goes down to the Nile. Moses is to take the same staff that turned into a snake and strike the waters of the Nile with it, which God says will turn to blood (7:17, 18). This sequence of events becomes the first of the 10 plagues. The rest of the parashah describes the next six punishments: an onslaught of frogs, insects, wild animals, pestilence, boils, and hail.

By now, some of you might be scratching your head in puzzlement. If you followed last week's Torah portion closely, you are probably sensing that this week's portion, in the words of Yogi Berra, is "déjà vu all over again." Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we read an account of Moses's lineage, of God's announcing that He will take the people out of Egypt, of a staff turning into a snake and water into blood, of Moshe's speech-impairment, and of God's appointing Aaron as surrogate spokesperson for Moshe. Every one of these topics appears in this week's parashah too.

What are we to make of the striking similarities between the two Torah portions? Moshe Greenberg, the great Bible scholar, acknowledges the redundancy but claims that it is for a purpose. The same series of events that precede and follow the opening speech of this week's parashah draw attention to it, highlight it. And for good reason. It is, notes Greenberg, one of the most majestic passages of the entire Torah.

The speech opens with God stating His name, "I am Adonai," which is a formula of power in the Ancient Near East. It continues with a series of seven verbs, all in the first person future tense: "I will free you (v'hozeiti) from the labors of the Egyptians, I will deliver you (v'hizalti) from their bondage, I will redeem you (v'ga'alti) with an outstretched arm, I will take you (v'lakahti) to be My people, I will be (v'hayyiti) your God, I will bring you (v'heiveiti) to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you (v'natati) for a possession" (Exod. 6:6–7). The speech ends the same way it began, with the words "I am Adonai." This inclusio, Greenberg further notes, marks it off as a self-contained unit.

In these seven action verbs (not just the four that correlate with the Passover seder's four cups of wine), God renews for the Israelites in Egypt the covenant He made with the patriarchs. God states that He will free the Israelites from slavery, enter into a "marital" relationship with them of care and protection, and bring them to the Promised Land. The commentators note that the verbs "LKH" and "HYH" (numbers four and five above) are used in the Bible in marital contexts. In exchange for God's kindnesses, the Israelites are expected to acknowledge that it is God who accomplished these feats for them, which means that they must worship Him alone. Later, at Sinai, they will be asked by God to observe many mitzvot. Here, in Va-era, they are only asked for fidelity to the relationship. So the reason for the repetition of so many incidents in two adjacent Torah portions is to urge us to think more deeply about the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish People. As this speech clearly indicates, it is one of reciprocity and commitment.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.