Israel Drazin

The Weekly Torah Reading Va’eira

Exodus Chapters 6:2–9:35 

God and Miracles (Chapter 6:3)

Moses seemed conflicted in the last weekly portion (Exodus 5:21–23). He asks why the Lord did “so much evil to this people” and wonders again why he was sent to liberate them.

Why were the Israelites enslaved for centuries? Can we say that God did not cause the enslavement—that it was the result of natural events? If the enslavement was a natural event, can we say that God was involved in saving the Israelites? Why is Moses reluctant to be God’s messenger to save the Israelites? Was this also natural? Did Moses want to help his enslaved kin but fear the difficulties involved?

In Exodus 6:3, God tells Moses about his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to aid their descendants. Then God states that He appeared to them “as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-h-v-h.” How should we understand the term El Shaddai? The words El Shaddai appear here for the first time in the Torah. Is it a name, or does it describe how God acts? Most scholars understand that the words refer to how God acts. He gives sufficient supplies to people and takes care of human needs. The Septuagint uses a Greek word in its translation that means “almighty” or “sufficient.” The Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 12a, Ibn Ezra, and others explain it as “He who says to the world, ‘Enough,’” suggesting God supplies humans all they need. Similar interpretations suggest God is all-powerful. In Acadian, shadu means “mountain,” an image of power. The description appears five other times in the Pentateuch: Genesis 17:1, 28:3, 35:11, 43:14, and 48:3.

But what does the Torah mean when it says that the patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai but not Y-h-v-h? Nachmanides was convinced that the “greatest secret” of the Torah is that God performs miracles daily. Some miracles are evident, like the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Some are not evident, like the falling of leaves and snow, because God is involved in making each leaf and each snowflake fall.

In his commentary on verse 6:3, he maintains, in the English translation by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel: “It is not [in nature] that man should be rewarded for [the] performance of a commandment or punished for committing a transgression but [it occurs] by miracles. If man were left to his nature or fortune, his deeds would neither add to nor diminish from him” because God controls and manipulates everything daily through miracles.

Nachmanides understands God to be saying to Moses, “Yes, I supplied the needs of the patriarchs, but I did so with hidden miracles. Now I will redeem the Israelites from Egypt with clear miracles, acts that change nature, so everyone will realize that I, God, am saving this people.”

Is Nachmanides’ theology rational? Is God involved in every earthly event, even rain and falling leaves? Or, can there be no miracles, and the Egyptian “miracles” be explained rationally? Or, is there a middle approach, the world functions according to the laws of nature, but perhaps during times of dire need, God interferes with the laws of nature and changes them to save people?

God’s Gifts (Exodus 6:8)

God promises He will give Canaan to the Israelites as a morashah, “heritage.” There are two Hebrew words, morashah and yerushah. Both have the same root and mean almost the same thing, yet there is a subtle but significant distinction between them. Morashah is a “heritage” (see also Deuteronomy 33:4, referring to the Torah), and yerushah is an “inheritance.”

A “heritage” belongs to a person or people by their birth, not because it is passed to them by another person. It is theirs and belongs to them even though they may not possess it. An “inheritance” must be acquired. A son or daughter may or may not get an inheritance from their parent, who might choose to give their property to another person. The obligations of the Torah are a “heritage” of the Jewish people. They are binding upon every Jew, even if he rejects them. Do you agree with this distinction?

God’s Demands to Pharaoh to Free the Israelites (Chapters 7–8)

God tells Moses in Exodus 7:1: “See that I have appointed you as an Elohim to Pharaoh.” Elohim is the plural of el, which denotes “power.” When the plural is used for the Deity, it means “the all-powerful” and is translated as “God.” The term is also used to denote “judges” in Exodus 21:6 and other powerful and influential people, as in Genesis 6:2. What does it mean here? Midrash Exodus Rabbah understands it as “a god”: “God said to Moses, ‘The wicked Pharaoh made himself out to be a god … let him, therefore, look at you and say, “This is god.’” Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is similar: “Why are you [Moses] overcome? See that I have already placed you as an idol to Pharaoh, just like his god, and Aaron, your brother, will be your prophet.” However, Targum Onkelos uses “teacher.”

Aaron is commanded to perform the act that will turn Egyptian waters into blood. The sages comment that Aaron and not Moses was assigned this task because water was responsible for saving Moses when he was placed in a basket in the Nile River. It would have been ungracious for Moses to harm the water and display ingratitude toward the instrument of his salvation. This is a good parable. It teaches us much. Ingratitude is a symptom of our failure to see and understand what we receive. The Spanish in 1492 failed to see all the contributions Jews had made to their civilization, and after expelling the Jews, Spain began to decline.

A kind of competition of Moses and Aaron against the Egyptian magicians and wise men (Verses 7:11–12, 7:22, 8:3, 8:14)

What is the implication of the Egyptian magicians’ ability to produce frogs but not remove them? Does this teach the continual tug of war between the forces of good and evil?

Why did Moses request that the Israelites be allowed to “worship God in the wilderness” for only three days (Exodus 7:16, 8:21–24)? Why three? Wasn’t God’s objective to free the Israelites from everlasting bondage? Was this a lie? Was it a test of Pharaoh’s resolve? Was it an opportunity to teach the Israelites about freedom?

The Sixth and Seventh Plagues (Chapter 9)

God introduces the sixth and seventh plagues by telling Moses to inform Pharaoh that “this time I will send all My plagues upon your heart, upon your servants, and your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me upon all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). But it is not clear about to which plagues God is referring. The commentators disagree.

Rashi maintains it is the tenth plague, the killing of firstborns. Ibn Ezra says the ninth plague, or all of the remaining plagues that will still strike Egypt. Saadia Gaon sees kol, “all,” as a hyperbole and uses “many” instead of “all.”

Is it any wonder that thousands of volumes were written explaining the Torah, which contributed significantly to the dynamics of Jewish life for over two thousand years?

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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