Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

The Redemptive Message of Parshat Va’era

Some people think some Jews have a shetl mentality. Others think some Jews have a slave mentality. Looking at the aftermath of the Hamas Pillage of October – two very different reactions surfaced: Some voiced the shtetl-victimhood, hand wringing and moaning, “they are always out to get us.” Others, mostly native Israelis, quietly started looking at what the country did to bring this about, admitting strategic failures and societal frisson. Even if now is not the time for a full-blown inquiry, admitting failure of responsibility is a showing of strength. Even if a counter-attack can eradicate this enemy, unless we determine our errors, in the future, someone else will play the destructor role.

As for this debacle, the message for all time will be not that Hamas did this to us, but that we did it to ourselves. Think back to the destruction of the Second Temple. What was the cause? The Romans, of course. But do we say that? No. We say the cause was gratuitous hatred. Same as today.

So, how do we take ourselves out of this slave mentality and accept responsibility for our contribution to our present predicament?  This is what this week’s Parsha comes to teach us. The process of redemption from bondage, not only physical, but mental and spiritual is not a simple step, but a process.

This week’s Parsha is about Redemption, or more properly, the redemptive process, for to be sure the journey from enslavement to freedom or restriction of possibility to achieving unlimited potential is a process, a journey.

This week’s parsha recounts the first seven of the ten plagues, which are discussed separately from the last three (dealt with in the next parsha, Bo). Here, we are also given overarching descriptives of the Exodus, an overview of the mechanism of Yetziat Mizrahim (the Exodus), an introduction to the Deity, and some connectors to the Pesach seder. Chapter 6 v. 6 and 7 also provide the answers to why there needed to be ten plagues, and why we drink four cups of wine.

The initial thought is the four cups are to show appreciation and awe for G-d’s greatness– but we don’t toast the ten plagues, indeed we remove some wine for each plague.

As to why there are ten plagues, some criticize the excessive use of force. Surely, the Holy One, could have removed the nascent Israelites from Egypt in one fell swoop, rather than subjecting the Egyptians to 10 separate plagues. Was this really necessary? We are of course told that the multiple plagues were not just to punish Pharaoh, but to demonstrate G-d’s greatness. But to whom is this demonstration directed? Does it really matter if Pharoah acceded to acknowledging the primacy of HKBH.

The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:1:7) explains the four cups are to commemorate the four languages of redemption contained in Scripture – which reflects the mechanism of our release from bondage.  The four being:

וְהוֹצֵאתִ י (and I removed you);

וְהִצַּלְתִּי (and I rescued you)

וְגָאַלְתִּי (and I redeemed you)

וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי (and I affianced you to myself)=

One query comes to mind: The four cups of wine are an expression of gratitude and recognition for G-d’s involvement in the creation of our peoplehood. However, are we really celebrating word usage- four synonyms reflecting different expressions of the same idea? True, these phrases signal G-d’s direct and personal involvement which merits acknowledgement and gratitude,  but saying “redemption” four different ways doesn’t seem to justify four toasts – even to the Almighty.

Thus, we are left with the conclusion that we are not celebrating the plagues, we are not glorifying G-d’s destructive powers, and per some commentators, we are not even toasting G-d’s personal involvement in the miracle (at least not four times), So, what, then?

A closer look at the Talmud’s wording, however, indicates that the word “languages” is not used. A more accurate translation would be that the four cups are in gratitude not for four languages of redemption but for four separate redemptions. A multi-phased process is going on here, or perhaps it might be said that there are four separate stages in the collective redemptive process of the Children of Israel.

It would seem that removing the taint of slavery and servitude cannot be done in one fell swoop, that going from the depths of spiritual tarnish to holiness requires a process: a four -step process, perhaps one we can emulate in our current struggles with whatever enslaves us, be it money, or social media, or power, or drugs, or any other addiction which holds power over us, such as a desire to retain control over the State of Israel, all of which deprives us from free exercise of choice and clarity of thought and strategic action.

According to Sefaria,  and Josh Feigelson, the four “languages” of redemption are actually four separate redemptions. Perhaps these can be associated with four separate stages of disassociating oneself from an enslavement addiction.

The first step in the process:

Thus, וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, per Sefaria, pertains to the first step in the redemptive process.

This step talks about being removed from the addictive process involving suffering or reducing the impact of the state of enslavement.

The first language specifically refers to G-d’s removing us from the burden of suffering – by lightening the load. It is not a total removal of the state of enslavement, but a reduction of the onus of the condition. It occurred after the first seven plagues, when the Egyptians were less inclined to inflict punishments on errant slaves, giving some respite and a taste of freedom.


The second stage

The second phase is   וְהִצַּלְתִּי (and I rescued you) refers to וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם saving us from being swallowed up by the state of slavery.

This removal from the state of slavery involves rescue. It is a passive situation necessitated by the involvement of a benevolent force.  Yet, even here, the Pharoah, the addiction, still has psychic control; even if we are not enslaved, we are still subject to the control of the Pharaoh, or the addictive/enslaving force.

The third phase

The third phase pertains to the transition from the state of slavery to the mental state of freedom. Thus, after the first ten plagues, but before we left Egypt, we were no longer slaves, but we were still under the control of Pharaoh. We were still in Egypt and hence subject to Pharoah’s decrees. This step entails physical removal from the state of enslavement/addiction and its locus. It is the removal from Egypt, the place of limitations, the release from the lowest depths and exposure to the potential of attaining the highest heights.  Here, G-d redeems us, meaning infusing our lives with a higher purpose. This step requires powerful action, both physical (removing ourselves from the locus of enslavement) and mental determination, great affirmations.

; וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים.

The fourth level

But that is not enough. The fourth phase requires adherence to something new, a higher plane or state, a substitution of the nadir for the abyss or the depths to which we had sunk. We need to identify a higher calling, a greater affiance. It is here that adherence to the Divine partnership takes place, recognizing that G-d has taken us to his people, and committed Himself to partnering with us in shepherding the world to a higher plane.

It means recognition, or knowing, or acknowledgment, וִידַעְתֶּם of the Divine Influence.

לָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם, מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם.

It means forging a partnership with Gd.

Only then does the redemptive process, removing ourselves from the baseness of subjugation to our egos, or the whims and powers of another, transforming us into being emissaries of the Divine.

The process of having the germ of slavery removed from our psyche, is physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional. It takes effort and it takes acknowledgement of the powers of the Divine.

As for the plagues. Some lament why did Gd had to subject the Egyptians to ten plagues, when He could have removed us in one instantaneous “swoop”. Indeed, the lessons of the Plagues resulted in miniscule loss of lives (compare G-d’s campaign to Gaza). Moreover, the plagues had a double impact. It resulted not only in the Egyptians’ release of our bondage, not only in showcasing the powers of the Divine, but bringing us slaves along slowly, in the manner in which could understand, to the realization of G-d’s concern and interest in Us, the Jewish people.

We conclude that the Ten Plagues had a double purpose. Not just to bring Pharaoh to justice, but to introduce G-d to His new people. Only the greatness of the Divine could achieve such a powerful – and double – result with such minimal destruction. It is for us to look in awe and gratitude for our redemption.

HKBH started the process. It is now in our hands to continue and refine it.

About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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