When the Lights are Dim

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, VaEira, continues the account of Moshe’s interaction with Pharaoh. His initial engagement with the ruler had the effect of worsening the plight of the Jewish slaves and undermining his own position with the people whose support he needed. He had complained to Hashem about this unexpected turn of events and G-d had said, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand, he will send them and with a strong hand he will drive them from his land” (Shemot 6:1).

Apparently, Moshe had been missing something, for he had believed that the inception of his mission meant that the time for the liberation had begun. Why would G-d send him if there was still some suffering that the people had to endure? And what is the meaning of the idea that now the process of redemption could ensue? It seems as if things had to get worse before they could get better. But why?

I have an explanation (which I recently saw in the commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch) that I would like to share. A major purpose of Hashem in redeeming the Jews was to make his Existence known, primarily to the Jews, but to all mankind as well. The  Exodus was to serve as the basis for every Jew’s acceptance of the “Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” i.e., our commitment to keeping the Torah. In order for that to happen, the Jews had to be thoroughly convinced of Pharaoh’s total mastery over Egypt and his iron-willed determination to subjugate and enslave them.

Therefore, if things had begun to improve immediately with Moshe’s intervention, the people might have thought that the redemption was brought about by ordinary political means and did not reflect divine intervention. Only when it was absolutely clear that Pharaoh was a complete tyrant who couldn’t be defeated by ordinary means could the revelation of Hashem commence.

Hashem now issued new instructions to Moshe as the next phase in the negotiations, the advent of the “plagues”, unfolded. Pharaoh was not to be influenced by abstract arguments alone. Moshe would arrange happenings that would convincingly demonstrate the existence of Hashem.

The brothers appeared before Pharaoh, and Aaron cast his staff on the ground, whereupon it turned into a snake. Pharaoh was no fool, and he called upon his magicians to do the same thing. The verse then states; “They cast each one his staff, and they were turned into serpents; and the staff of Aaron swallowed their staffs” (Shemot 7:12). Predictably, “Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen to them as Hashem had said” (Shemot 7:13).

It remains to be seen whether Pharaoh was sinful in refusing to be convinced by this performance. After all, his magic workers were also able to turn staffs into snakes, so what did Moshe’s gesture accomplish? Well, if we look closely, we can see that the staff of Aaron swallowed the other staffs. Didn’t that imply that there was something unique about the staff of Aaron that the staffs of the magicians didn’t possess? Yet it doesn’t seem that this blatant fact made any impression upon the Egyptian ruler.

We may ask, why did Hashem instruct Moshe to perform a “miracle” before Pharaoh whose purpose was to prove Hashem’s existence, but which (seemingly) could be duplicated by his own magicians? Doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose?

You may respond that there was something unique that could not be replicated, namely the capacity of Aaron’s staff to swallow the serpents. But still, why didn’t Hashem provide Moshe with a miracle so profound that the magicians of Pharaoh could not have imitated it, in even the slightest of ways?

We can learn something very important from this. Hashem wants man to recognize and worship Him. But to do so he must use his mind and the capacity to reason and reach logical conclusions that Hashem has endowed him with. He provides many opportunities for people to accomplish this. G-d reveals Himself in the natural order, which operates according to the greatest wisdom and understanding. If a person were to study nature, he would see that it functions on the basis of a system of laws that exhibits the most profound design and rationality—all of which bespeak a Designer.

Hashem provides man with the necessary tools to discover Him, but man must play his part. He cannot sit back passively and wait for G-d to miraculously plant the awareness of His existence in his brain. If he diligently searches for the Creator in a dedicated energetic way, he will find Him.

In a display of infinite compassion, Hashem sent His greatest prophet to personally instruct Pharaoh about G-d’s Will for man. How many people in history have had the opportunity that was within Pharaoh’s grasp? But the tyrant’s massive ego prevented him from taking advantage of this blessing and learning the truth.

So Aaron cast down his staff, and it changed into a snake. When the magicians seemingly, (I say seemingly because they did not produce an actual live snake, but through sleight of hand made it appear as if they had) did so, Pharaoh should have noticed the unique character of what Aaron had done, and pursued the matter further, until he arrived at the truth. The failure was his.

There is much that we can learn from the account of Moshe’s interaction with the Egyptian tyrant. We are instructed to use all of the spiritual gifts Hashem has given us to search for Him in the world He has Created and in the Torah He has Revealed. We cannot be passive or lethargic in this endeavor, for it constitutes our fundamental purpose in life. Man was created to discover his Creator.

And we must internalize the lesson of Moshe’s disappointment when initially Pharaoh made the situation worse for the Jews. All of that was to prepare the Jews for the miracle of redemption which was at hand. In response to Moshe’s complaint, Hashem reminded him of the example of the Avot (Patriarchs) to whom He had given assurances that were not fulfilled in their lifetimes. Still, they had absolute faith that whatever G-d had promised would come about.

The pure faith of the Avot is a source of inspiration for us. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, we experience painful and unexpected setbacks, and it may cause us to lose hope. It is especially at those times that we need to renew our trust in the promises of Hashem. If we remain steadfast and do the things we are supposed to do, we may emerge from our trial on a higher level than we were before.

And there are people who are lonely because they can’t seem to find that “right one” and establish a meaningful relationship. A great deal of courage is required to stick to one’s path and not yield to all the social pressures one faces. Nor should anyone be dismayed by how things “look” or  be pressured to settle for a situation that he knows deep down will not be right for him. Every person must live his life according to its own unique timetable and trust his judgment and be uplifted by his authentic Emunah (Faith).

The message of “Now you will see” has profound meaning for Klal Yisrael as well. Sometimes, just when we imagine that the process of redemption has begun, we face an awful setback like the one that occurred on October 7. This need not deter us from our forward movement. Rather, this must confirm for us what Pharaoh’s treachery made clear to the slaves in Egypt; the redemption cannot come about without assistance from the One Above.

And this is so true for us. We must engage in the building and settling of the land and its transformation into a leading society in all areas of endeavor. And we must employ all of our resources to produce the best military in order to protect the people and the Holy Land.

But we must never imagine that we can effectuate the true and ultimate Geula (Redemption) on our own. We must renew and repair our relationship with Hashem and strive to reach a higher level in terms of our loyalty to the Torah and compassionate treatment of our fellow Jews and the “righteous of the nations”. Our goal is that Israel should become a spiritual beacon of light to all of civilized mankind, to all who seek Hashem in truth.

Shabbat Shalom.