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Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

“…I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.”

(Exodus 6:6)

Parashat Va’era is better known than most because its contents are recounted each year at the Passover seder.  Moses’ request for and Pharoah’s refusal to let the Israelites worship God in the desert initiates the first seven of the ten plagues (the final three occur in Bo, next week’s parasha (portion)).  The plagues are supposed to persuade Pharoah of God’s supreme power.  It turns out the plagues are intended to persuade the Israelites of the very same thing.

In Va’era, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “And I will take you to be my people and I will be your God.  And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God, who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.” (Ex. 6:7)  Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; modern Biblical scholar) observes “to know” is significant in the Exodus story; it appears over twenty times (in its various forms) in the first fourteen chapters.  In the Torah, knowing is not an intellectual or cognitive construct, exclusively. Instead, it includes an emotional component, is rooted in experience, and implies contact, connection, intimacy, and mutuality.  When Moses tells the Israelites they shall know God (in the future), it implies that at the present moment, they don’t.  That’s not surprising, given their experience of misery and slavery.  The plagues are supposed to change that.

So the Biblical understanding of knowing is based on experiential learning, a mainstay of JCCs.  But it is important to remember that while JCCs may structure the activity, it is the individual participant who determines the experience and its meaning.  This may be why things don’t go exactly as planned in Exodus; God may send the plagues, but the Israelites decide what the plagues and their aftermath mean to them.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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