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Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

“Plead with the Lord that there may be an end of God’s thunder and of hail.
I will let you go; you need stay no longer” (Exodus 9:28).

Parashat Va’era describes the first seven plagues God inflicts upon Pharaoh and Egypt. Each time Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites, God sends another plague. When the suffering becomes unbearable, Pharaoh relents. The moment the plague stops, though, he reneges. But Pharaoh never admits to God’s sovereignty, until the seventh plague. What’s makes hail so special?

Moses warns Pharaoh the hail will come (Ex. 9:18) but God tells him to add something new. So Moses says, “Therefore, order your livestock and everything you have in the open brought under shelter; every man and beast that is found outside, not having been brought indoors shall perish when the hail comes down upon them” (Ex. 9:19). When Pharaoh sees that is what happens, actually, he tells Moses, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong” (Ex. 9:27).

The purpose of the plagues is education: to get Pharaoh to know God is the Lord (Ex. 7:17) so it’s not enough for Pharaoh to free the Israelites only to avoid punishment. And that’s what makes this plague different: God models compassion by offering a way to avoid the hail, if they want (Midrash Tanchuma Va’era 20). Pharaoh is moved and impressed; he knows he is incapable of mercy so he acknowledges God’s supremacy, finally. It is but a momentary crack in Pharaoh’s psyche, though; he reverts to form once the plague (and the suffering) ends.

Classic Jewish theology posits an infinity of Divine attributes. That Pharaoh’s attention is caught not by God’s might or vengeance, but by compassion attests to its centrality.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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