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Parashat Vaera: Seeing in a new light

How events that seem to contradict the natural course of history teach the Israelites what their God is all about

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and I was not known to them by My Name….

Here we have an interesting contradiction. Earlier in the Torah, this name of God — called the Tetragammaton, or Four-Lettered Name — was used by the Patriarchs themselves. So why does God here tell Moses that the Patriarchs did not know Him by that name?

There are several ways that one can resolve this contradiction. The easiest — and probably least enlightening — is the way in which it is resolved by academic scholars, who point to different source material that was eventually incorporated into the Torah, complete with contradictions and paradoxes. Another solution is to argue that the final book was written from the point of view of its generation, and so the names of God were given from their standpoint, regardless of how the Patriarchs themselves had known God.

But there is a third possibility. Rather than reasoning away the contradictions, we can use them to learn a deeper truth from a close reading of the text.

Most of this week’s parsha is concerned with Moses’ and Aaron’s mission to Pharaoh. They work signs and wonders, and Pharaoh repeatedly “hardens his heart” and refuses to release his Israelite slaves.

It is a tale of the institutionalization of oppression, and how difficult it can be to break through stereotypes, bureaucratic apathy, and governmental obstinacy. But it is also a lesson in how those in power can rationalize their decisions — even disastrous decisions — in order to avoid acknowledging past mistakes.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they can make a concept

Pharaoh compounds his first mistake by becoming further entrenched in his determination not to let the slaves go free. There is an important lesson in how mindsets become prisons. It is a known phenomenon that when presented with a diversity of information, we selectively filter out anything that does not corroborate past experience.

In Pharaoh’s case, this is made much easier by the fact that Aaron and Moses start out with easily replicated tricks. Once assured that his own magicians can reproduce their “signs and wonders,” Pharaoh has no reason to see that anything unusual is afoot. The challenge to the status quo can be reasoned away.

Even when things escalate to a plague of lice, which Pharaoh’s court wizards are unable to reproduce, Pharaoh continues to “strengthen his heart.” Habits of thought are hard to break. Only when a plague strikes that the court wizards not only cannot reproduce, but from which they cannot even save themselves, does the text say, “Hashem strengthened Pharaoh’s heart.” Exodus Rabbah, in noting the change of language, says:

When God saw that Pharaoh did not relent after the first five plagues, He said: Even if Pharaoh now wished to repent, I shall harden his heart, in order to exact full punishment from him.

Pharaoh’s problem is well-known to psychologists. Once a way of thinking becomes habituated, each time we resist change, we further lose our ability to see contradictory facts. Pharaoh’s dismissal of the evidence at hand was at first a conscious act, but by this point, it is out of his hands; he has become a slave of his own “concept,” and no longer can see what is obvious to everyone else.

And, of course, what happened to Pharaoh in the realm of the mind happened to Egyptian society in a more concrete sense. The Egyptians institutionalized slavery. It became a habit, a permanent feature of their economy, which they could not leave behind of their own free will.

Seeing God in the improbable

For both Pharaoh and his people, it literally takes a miracle to shake them out of their habits and make them do the right thing. And this is the solution to the contradiction pointed out above. At every major turning point, God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not listen to him, and will inevitably bring about the next escalation, until finally the results no longer can be reasoned away. By highlighting the institutionalization of the slavery, the eventual emancipation is shown for the miracle that it is.

“By this you will know I am Hashem” — by the fact that something will happen that could not normally come about in the natural course of things. A whole people will be freed from the iron grip of institutionalized slavery, not because the slave-holders saw the error of their ways, nor because the institution was no longer profitable. The emancipation will happen against the will of society and its leaders, long before social norms develop against slavery, and long before human rights organizations and lobbies exist to fight the institution on its own ground. And yet, it will happen.

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a sign that what happens next is a miracle. It is a lesson in seeing God in the improbable and seemingly impossible.

A lesson for whom?

But for whom is this lesson intended? Obviously, the Egyptians are the immediate audience, since only when they are convinced that they are dealing with something outside of their experience can they be induced to take action.

But the broader lesson seems aimed at the Children of Israel themselves:

…and you will know that I am Hashem your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

While the Patriarchs may have known God by the same name, it is through His direct intervention in Egypt, an event that seems to go completely against the natural course of history, that the Israelites come to know what their God is all about.

Moreover, the lesson is not confined to the generation that actually experienced the miracle first-hand. It applies equally to our generation. The same miracle is evident in the survival of the Jewish people — as a people — through 2,000 years of exile, persecution, and assimilation.

Perhaps that lesson too is hidden in plain sight at the very beginning of our parsha, which speaks of more than just the end of the Egyptian slavery….

And I will take you to Me as a people, and I shall become your God, and you will know that I am Hashem your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am Hashem.

The lesson in “knowing God” taught by the seeming impossibility of the Egyptian emancipation is applicable to our own day, as we come out of another, much harsher and much longer exile. But the lesson is the same lesson.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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