by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970
The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Va’era, meaning “…and I appeared” and covers Exodus chapters six through nine. God tells Moses that whereas He had appeared to the Patriarchs by the title El Shaddai, God Almighty, He was now revealing Himself to Moses and Israel by His personal name – a name we have long since lost the knowledge to pronounce correctly. It is comprised of just four letters, yod, hay, vav and hay – which is why it is referred to as the Tetragrammaton (from Greek meaning “four” “letter”). Some mistakenly pronounce it Jehovah, which is a linguistic improbability in Hebrew, owing to the lack of a hard “J” sound, and others pronounce it Yahweh which is, at best, speculative. Our people long ago determined to not risk mispronouncing the sacred name; and though still written in Scripture as yod, hay, vav, hay, is spoken aloud as “Adonai” – Lord.
Adonai assures Moses that He remembers the covenant He made with the Patriarchs, to give the land of Canaan to their descendants, and that He is aware of the terrible oppression the sons of Israel are suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. God sends Moses to announce to them that He will accomplish their deliverance from Egypt, and will bring them into the Promised Land. Moses goes and announces it, but the people, we are told, are despondent and hard-pressed to believe him. But God was going to deliver His people whether they believed or not, and so He sends Moses to Pharaoh.
Suddenly the narrative is interrupted with a genealogy – a genealogy focused primarily on the tribe of Levi and two particular individuals from that tribe: Moses and Aaron. Why this abrupt insertion of a genealogy? Because it was necessary to establish the credentials of the two men who together were going to lead the people and supervise the religious life of the entire nation. In ancient Israel, you didn’t get to square one without proving proper ancestral lineage.
In chapter seven God tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that Pharaoh will refuse to let Israel go, and it will provide God the opportunity to display His signs and wonders in Egypt. The idea that God hardens a man’s heart and then judges him may make some people uncomfortable, but we’re told why it would be this way: And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst (7:5). In fact, God’s authority was so undeniable that when our people left Egypt, a multitude of non-Israelis accompanied us (12:38). When God judges, it is often with a redemptive purpose. The Egyptians will one day worship the Lord side-by-side with Israelis (see Isaiah 19:16-25)!
Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh (at ages 80 and 83, respectively!). Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a serpent, but Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate the sign, so Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Counterfeit miracles? Yes – so don’t be impressed just because you see supernatural signs. Listen to what is being proclaimed, and make sure it is in keeping with the Scriptures, and that the one performing the miracle is a genuine servant of God and is of good character. The next day Moses and Aaron confront him again in the name of the Lord, and Aaron’s staff is waved over the Nile and the water of the Nile turns to blood! But once again, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the sign, and so again he hardens his heart. They waved the staff over the rivers and reservoirs as well, and all the water turned to blood. All the fish died, and the Nile became foul.
In chapter eight, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh again in the name of the Lord, calling him to let God’s people go. Pharaoh refuses and the land is smitten with frogs everywhere – in the house, on the bed, even in the oven. The magicians were also able to make frogs. Great – more frogs. Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, promising that if they will entreat the Lord to remove the frogs, he will let Israel go. Moses even allows Pharaoh to name the time for it to happen, so that he might know it was from the Lord. And sure enough, at that very time all the frogs (except for those in the Nile) die out and disappear. But Pharaoh hardens his heart again.
And so it continues, chapters eight and nine chronicling five more plagues: gnats, swarms of insects, the death of Egypt’s cattle, horrible sores on the skin of the Egyptians, hail destroying both crops and what little livestock remained- each time Pharaoh promising to let Israel go if the plague would only be removed, and then hardening his heart and reneging on his word once God removed it. Pharaoh bears responsibility for the great suffering of the Egyptian people. Had he humbled himself before the God of Israel, there might have been blessings instead of plagues.
One of the most startling truths brought out in this passage of Scripture is our capacity as fallen human beings to harden our hearts and dismiss evidence before our very eyes. Miracles rarely produce faith. The person who is dedicated to unbelief will always manage to find an alternative explanation.
The story is told of an ad executive who was running late for a make-it-or-break-it deal with a large firm whose offices were downtown. Millions of dollars, not to mention his job, hinged on landing this account, but as is often the case in a big city, there wasn’t a parking space anywhere to be found, and time was rapidly running out. Finally, in desperation, he looks up and cries out, “God, I promise if you’ll just give me a parking space right now, I will give up the drinking and partying and will go back to church!” At that very instant – right in front of the very building he was going to, a parking space opens up. He looks up and says, “Nevermind, I found one.”
We must learn from Egypt’s painful object lesson that Adonai alone is God, and all the gods of the people are idols. May it not require plagues to bring us and our friends and loved ones to a saving knowledge of God and of Messiah Yeshua. Finally, we must learn to honor our commitments. Yeshua declared, “let your ‘yes’ be yes”. God’s people are expected to maintain honesty and faithfulness in all our dealings. Pharaoh was dishonest, but then again, Pharaoh was not one of God’s people.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Va’eira וָאֵרָא. Other transliterations: Va’eirah, Va’era, or Vaera