“But I will hardenPharoah’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3)The revelation at Mt. Sinai is the peak moment in the Torah (literally and figuratively). God alludes to it back in Genesis, but the action begins in earnest in this week’s parasha (portion). Things look bleak: Moses’ appeal to Pharoah results in even harder labor for the Israelites and so God sends the plagues (Va’era includes the first seven of the ten). This portion is better-known than most because we tell it each year at the Passover seder. Still, it is easy to overlook the big idea behind this particular narrative: things can change because God intervenes in history.
The parasha makes this very point in its opening verses with a nifty literary device called a chiasm. A set of ideas are presented once, and then are presented a second time, in reverse order. In this chiasm, God tells Moses four things: I am God; I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I established a brit (covenant) with them to give them a land, and; I hear their suffering in Egypt. (Note that this first presentation refers to the past.) God then proclaims, “I am God, “and repeats the four things, but in reverse order, referring to the future: I will take you out of Egypt; I will bring you to the land; I will give you the land I promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and; I am God. (Exodus 6:2-8)
In Genesis God makes promises. According to Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator), Exodus is different because God begins to act upon those promises and makes things happen. In the modern world, the idea that things can change doesn’t seem like a big deal, or even a particularly Jewish deal. Yet, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) , the idea that God is invested enough in the world to “mix in” to upend the status quo is a foundation of Jewish thought, and a source of Jewish hope throughout the ages.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. David Ackerman is the director of JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education.