Understanding Parshat Va’era
First a relevant flashback to Parshat Shemot.
Shemot gives us mixed signals regarding Egypt’s attitude and intentions regarding the Israelites.
On the one hand Egypt seems desirous of holding on to the Israelites as ‘slaves’ (Exodus 1:10)—פן ירבה והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה ונוסף גם הוא על שנאינו ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ “lest they multiply and should war occur he (Israel) too will join our enemies v’ala min Haaretz” (normally translated and ‘and so go up out of the land’). Based on this verse the Egyptians very much want to hold onto their Israelite slaves.
And yet just a few verses later (1:16) the opposite is manifest, as the Pharaoh orders the Israelite midwives אם בן הוא והמתן אתו “if it is a male, you should kill him”.
Clearly there seems to be a conflicting attitude.
Moreover, the clause in verse 10 ״ועלה מן הארץ״ as meaning ‘and so go up out of the land’ makes no sense. After all, if such a war were to occur and the Israelites were to serve as a fifth column, the last thing they would do (as victors) would be to leave the land. If anything they would stay put and subjugate the natives.
So why do we conventionally translate ועלה מן הארץ as ‘and so go up out of the land’? Perhaps we reflexively associate the root ‘עלה’ with עליה, and ארץ with Eretz Israel, which is hardly the case here. The last thing Egyptians would think of is aliyah and Israel. I would suggest that ועלה מן הארץ means literally ‘to rise from the land’ i.e. to reach a high social status.
Now, mind you, there were already plenty of Israelites who were doing quite well for themselves. As I pointed out in last week’s essay, slavery in Egypt was an entirely different institution than in the ante-bellum American south. Everyone in Egypt was a slave except for Pharaoh, in the sense of kicking the one below him and kissing the one above. That was the social order in Egypt. And we need no greater proof that some Israelites had made it fairly high on the social ladder than the fact that Pharaoh had a working relationship with Israelite midwives, and that Moses and Aaron could waltz into Pharaoh’s throne room at will and talk to him face to face.
Now let us go to Parshat Vaera.
At first there is no indication of any need for plagues to convince Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave. Indeed, from what we have gleaned from Parshat Shemot, the Egyptians would have been delighted to see the Israelites go. Could it be that it was the Israelites themselves who wanted to stay?
Let’s a have a look at the text.
G-d tells Moses to tell the Israelites (6:6). אני יהו-ה והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים “I am the Lord and I will take you from under the Egyptian oppression”.
Moses obeys G-d (6:9) וידבר משה כן אל בני ישראל ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה “And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they did not heed Moshe for lack of patience and because of hard work”.
Now what if the Children of Israel HAD listened to Moshe? Clearly the story would have ended here. They would have packed their bags and gone. That they CHOSE not to listen had nothing to do with their freedom to leave. It had to do with their desire to stay. As we saw in Parshat Shemot, the Egyptians really wanted to get rid of the Israelites
It is only now that the business of plagues begins. And the purpose of these plagues would be twofold:
- To persuade Pharaoh to kick the Israelites out (against their will) and;
- To help the Israelites realize that they had no business staying in Egypt, and that it was their destiny to get out and go back to where they belong.
(Although I always stick to the pshat (literal meaning) of the text, it is interesting to note that the Midrash says only 20% of Israelites ever left Egypt – which just shows the degree of integration, assimilation and inertia that prevailed — and this was AFTER the ten plagues.)
So what exactly was going on with these Israelites? To what precisely were they enslaved? A hint is offered in verse 6:5 when G-d says: וגם אני שמעתי את נאקת בני ישראל אשר מצרים מעבדים אתם. “And I have also heard the groaning of the Children of Israel that Egypt subjugates them”. Note that it is EGYPT which subjugates them, not EGYPTIANS. Perhaps the Israelites are enslaved to the very life of Egypt, much as most Jews are slaves to the life of their diaspora host countries today?
For, is a corporate lawyer working 90 hours a week in New York for $500,000 a year not a slave to his job because he is enslaved to his lifestyle? Indeed, is he not a slave to America? The same is a fortiori true for Jews in western Europe who really have no business being there. The handwriting is so clearly inscribed on the proverbial walls of France, Belgium, Germany, Holland and even England that one has to be fundamentally defective not to see it. Yet here, too, the Jews are slaves to their respective countries, slaves to the lifestyle that that country offers – be it for richer or for poorer.
Ask most committed Jews in the diaspora why they remain there and you get one of two reasons:
- I don’t have enough money to become an Israeli, or
- I have too much money to become an Israeli. There would be tax consequences should I live there.
The first group comprises the bottom-rung slaves; wage slaves who cannot see themselves clear to running for their lives unless they first reach a certain economic threshold (an ante that always gets mysteriously upped as soon as it is reached).
The second group is comprised of those who are too rich and refuse to pay the price in terms of Israeli taxes despite the fact they would still be rich after paying for the privilege of living as free people.
But very, very few will read the handwriting on the wall and say they have enough to make a go of it. Because slavery is addictive. Most of us are slaves to money, to a lifestyle, to our careers (Americans especially live to work rather than work to live, and their egos and sense of self-worth are utterly bound up in their profession, corporate rank, partnership status, etc.) to paying blood money for our children to get a Harvard, Yale, Princeton diploma, to owning a 3,500 square foot home (for starters) in a posh neighborhood.
Hence, we rarely act in our own best interests, preferring to be armchair Zionists, sending or kids to gap years in questionable yeshivot, or worse yet to real hesder yeshivot where they sit as eunuchs next to real Jews who know how to fight and can combine Torah with Golani and Tzanhanim.
These children (for they remain children, unlike their Israeli counterparts) then go back to America to fall under the nefarious influence of ivy-league professors who castrate them into politically correct semi-intellectuals for tuition of a mere $60,000 a year, before yielding them up to 7-9 years of professional schools and professional slavery from which it becomes nearly impossible to liberate oneself.
How sad. How identical to ancient Egypt where “not enough” and “too much” prevented our ancestors from hearing Moses. They were קצר רוח too impatient, too busy to listen because of their עבדה קשה – the need to finish a legal brief, another public offering, a new hedge-fund shenanigan while their families are neglected from sundown Saturday to sunset Friday.
Nothing ever changes.