January 14, 2021


1.15.2021 Weekly Torah Portion

One of my favorite things about working at Beit T’Shuvah is the ability to witness transformation.  It is a privilege and a gift to see individuals come in broken and then heal.

So much of our healing depends on our own willingness and effort to grow, to learn and to be willing to take the next right step into the unknown.  It requires a step of faith; the uncharted path is different from the road we’ve already been down too many times.

But what happens when we are closed?  When we’re resistant to changing?  What if, no matter what the promises or incentives to change are, we stick to what enslaves us?  This is the challenge that Moses faces in this week’s parashah, Va’eira.

Moses has overcome his own reluctance to accept a new and daunting task.  He has heeded God’s call to approach Pharaoh and demand the freedom of God’s children from bondage, and not only has Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, he has added to their daily quota of labor!

But God reassures Moses and promises deliverance:

“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  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.  I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord” (Exodus 6:6-8).

These are some big promises.  God’s gonna take us out of slavery and free us with miracles that the world has never seen.  God is assuring us that God’s gonna be on our side!  And wait there’s more: God will bring us into a land flowing with milk and honey, too!  Doesn’t that sound better than slavery?!  Who wouldn’t want to take that deal?  Sign me up!!!

But the Israelites’ response is that of disbelief and apathy:

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exodus 6:9).

The Israelites lacked hope.  They believed they were destined to be slaves.  So please Moses, don’t make it harder on us than it already is.  The day-to-day cruelty of forced labor crushed their spirits, and they lacked the strength and willingness needed to make long-lasting change.

Sforno, the 15th century Italian commentator adds: “…for it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise.”  When we’re enslaved and stuck in perpetual habits, we cannot fathom another way out.  Our hearts and minds can’t integrate any other possibility.  We are closed and unwilling to change.

But the Israelites aren’t the only ones who are resistant.  After seeing their underwhelming response to God’s promises, Moses returns to God in bitterness, questioning his own role and capacity to lead.

But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12).

He believes he can’t lead because he doesn’t speak eloquently.  Despite all the miracles he witnessed firsthand and God speaking to him directly!!!  Instead it’s: How in the world will Pharaoh listen to me if I cannot even motivate my own people to want to change and leave Egypt?  God, I’m not worthy enough for this position!  Please find someone else, God!

And then there is the grand master of resistance, the Pharaoh-in-chief.  He is the leader of a large and powerful country, and he is in complete denial about how his actions cause suffering.  Pharaoh and the Egyptians face seven plagues in this week’s parashah.  His heart is hardened, stiffened, and he is incapable of seeing the world any other way, despite the wonders and miracles that Moses displays on God’s behest.

Nothing seems to matter to Pharaoh other than maintaining his power and “god-like” status.   Instead of surrendering, he summons his own magicians to recreate the first two plagues (blood and frogs).  But the third plague (lice) Pharaoh’s magicians are unable to produce, and they announce, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:15).  Eventually Pharaoh’s own enablers, who have stood by his side throughout his years of corruption and abuse, finally rebuke him and try to guide him into the right decision:

“How long shall this one be a snare to us?  Let the men go to worship the Lord their God!  Are you not aware that Egypt is lost?!” (Exodus 10:7)

But Pharaoh won’t hit bottom until the 10th and final plague.  And even after his son’s death and the Israelites’ subsequent exodus, he’ll change his mind again and cause more death and destruction.

The beautiful part of learning Torah is being able to see ourselves in the text.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll notice that we are just like the Israelites in refusing to leave slavery and just like Moses in doubting our abilities.  And at times, maybe more times than we’d like to admit, we can also be just like Pharaoh, causing destruction and suffering to others and never relenting.

The questions remain: what am I still resistant to?  How do I continue to perpetuate my own enslavement?  How do I continue to harden my heart to the suffering of others?  What proof or signs am I waiting for in order to change?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

The degree to which one is sensitive to other people’s suffering, to other men’s humanity, is the index of one’s own humanity… The opposite of humanity is brutality, the failure to acknowledge the humanity of one’s fellow man, the failure to be sensitive to his needs, to his situation.  Brutality is often due to a failure of imagination as well as to the tendency to treat a person as a generality, to regard a person as an average man” (Who is Man, p46-47).

We must never forget the inherent value of each person’s soul.  No one is average!  We must never lose sight and must use our gifts of imagination to visualize the greatness and the potential each individual life possesses.

We get to witness miracles daily in the transformation and growth of our residents and community.  It’s not always pretty for any of us.  Our internal resistance is so strong, especially given the current crises we’re all living through.  In fact, when we look at the world around us, this year already feels tragic in many ways.  Yet when there is a belief in something greater than ourselves, when there is hope, there is resilience.   When there is community and connection, we can support and inspire each other to make that long walk toward freedom.  The only way to the promised land is taking one step at a time through the wilderness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joseph