Sometimes even birds forget how to fly. Sometimes birds are afraid to fly. If there is one resounding lesson God invokes in this week’s Parsha, is that it is normal to forget how to fly and that we ought not fall victims to that trap.
The Parsha begins with words the children of Israel have been yearning for, for hundreds of years.
“God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.
Just amazing! Everything the Jewish people have been asking for! God will take them out of slavery and bring them to the land of Canaan. Finally! They will be free. As if this is not enough, God offers more.
“And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’ ”
It is everything the Jewish people have been praying for, and more!
Not only will the Jewish people escape slavery and return to the land of Canaan, but they will be God’s chosen people and be able to call the land their own. Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, in his commentary, adds that this is also referring to God’s promise that they will leave the land of Egypt with great wealth. What more can they ask for. Undoubtedly, the people of Israel are rejoicing upon hearing this news.
Except they aren’t.
“Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.”
The great medieval commentators take this quite literally. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, France 1040-1105) understands this shortness of breath to be reefing to the extraordinary amount of manual labor the Jews were subjected to. With a workload above what human beings are capable of handling any national aspirations or stirring up any sense of optimism.
Similarly, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (1194-1270, Girona Spain), in his commentary, takes this statement for what it is, yet reflects on what happened when Moses first arrived with good news. The Israelites got their hopes up, just to have Pharaoh double their workload. Getting excited about national liberation was no longer something they with which they wanted to take risks.
The Midrash, on the other hand, has a hard time accepting this. “Is there a person who hears good news and does not accept it?! Is there a slave who is set free and is not happy?!”
The Jewish people’s refusal to rejoice in the news of liberation is too unfathomable for many to accept. The Midrash (Mechilta De’Rabi Yishmael, Parshat Bo, 5) goes on to say “rather, it was too hard for the Jews to separate themselves from Avodah Zarah (idol worship)”.
One of the most difficult natural phenomena to watch is when captured birds are set free and they won’t fly. It is as if it is not clear if they forgot how to fly or perhaps it is that they no longer yearn to be free. So many Jews got used to their lifestyle in Egypt, it is all they knew. Freedom was just scary. This can be reefing to physical freedom, or spiritual freedom, as the Midrash notes. It is the story of the bird who forgot it had wings.
Though different, the fear of flying was not limited to the Jewish people.
God then turns to Moses.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Come, speak to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and he will let the children of Israel out of his land.” But Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, “Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?”
Commentaries note that Moses is making two separate points here. One, if he failed to persuade the Jewish people whose despair and slavery ought to compel them to listen, surely Pharaoh, who is lacking those will not take Moses’s word. Secondly, Moses contended that someone like himself with a speech impediment is unlikely to succeed in persuasive oration.
Both were wrong.
The only way I can explain this is with a story. I once met a professor in an Ivy League college whose job extended beyond the classroom. In addition to being highly regarded in her academic knowledge, she also sat on a scholarship awards board. She and her colleagues would look at applications and would decide which of the many applicants was best fit to receive a significant financial contribution towards their education. “Do you know what the number one factor is in disqualifying a person from receiving our scholarships, far beyond anything else?”, she asked.
“No,” I said while getting very curious.
“People disqualify themselves. Often those who need the scholarship most and are most worthy of receiving it. They do so by not applying.”
This answer shocked me. Despite hearing it years ago, the story of the many well-qualified people who disqualify themselves from an Ivy League school, with a scholarship, do so because they think they are not worthy of it. They don’t bother applying because they believe there is no chance they will get it. They are like the bird who forgot it has wings.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, an incredible scholar, poet, and leader in one of this most famous works words addressed especially to young people:
Rise up, for you have the power.
You have wings of the spirit, wings of powerful eagles.
Do not deny them, or they will deny you.
Seek them, and you will find them instantly.”
)Rabbi A.Y. Hakohen Kook, Orot Hakodesh I, pp. 83-84(
The message of parshat Va’era is to never forget the wings we have. Whether it is the children of Israel, or Moses, God’s message is fly, you can do it. “You have wings of a powerful eagle. May we be blessed with God’s confidence, wings, and ability to seek out and find our wings.