Promises Broken and Kept

Va'era By :  Emily Barton JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Jan 27, 2017 / 5777 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective

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“Promises, Promises”, sung by Dionne Warwick, music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

Promises, promises
I’m all through with promises, promises now
I don’t know how I got the nerve to walk out…
Oh, promises, promises
This is where those promises, promises end
I don’t pretend that what was wrong can be right
Things that I promised myself fell apart
But I found my heart

Oh, promises, their kind of promises
Can just destroy a life
Oh, promises, those kind of promises
Take all the joy from life
Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises
Can lead to joy and hope and love…

This week’s parashah, Va’era, is all about promises: ones that are kept and ones that are broken, perhaps reminding us of the promises that Dionne Warwick sang about in her 1968 top-ten hit. The parashah begins with God speaking to Moses: “I have remembered My Covenant… I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt… I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a God to you” (Exod. 6:5-7). God threatens Pharaoh with plagues unless he lets God’s people free. When Pharaoh does not let B’nei Yisrael go, God fulfills those promises—destroying lives as a consequence, but laying the groundwork for redemption.

Pharaoh, on the other hand, promises Moses four times that he will send B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt if the Egyptians see some relief from the plagues. Each time the respite is provided, Pharaoh breaks his promise, effectively increasing the severity of the Egyptians’ punishment. His attempt to look strong in the face of his people—hardening his heart and holding out on Israel’s God—ironically has the opposite effect.

Promises, whether between a ruler and their people, between God and humanity, or amongst ourselves, create different experiences depending on who upholds or breaks the promise and who is on the other side. Warwick’s song expresses this spectrum of experience, as does our parashah. May we remember that our own promises do not just involve our hearts, but others’ as well. May those promises lead us to love.