Va-eira Summary and Commentary through a Social Justice and Reflective Lens
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Va-eira (and I appeared) is Sh'mot's second parashah and the Torah’s fourteenth. The Eternal continues to cultivate an intimate relationship with Moshe and to grow him into the leader needed for God's plan to redeem us.
The Eternal reintroduces the Godself to Moshe as El Shaddai with the previously known Hebrew signature: יהוה, and states that the name was not known to our ancestors. El Shaddai is used in Breisheet/Genesis (17.1-8 and 35.11-12). Within the context of Sh’mot, The Eternal interacts differently with Moshe and, eventually, us. The Eternal’s first appearance in Sh’mot is within fire (3.2-7). We will follow a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The God of Breisheet walked among our ancestors, came to them in person, and through dreams. We will know this God through amazing feats that will be celebrated and honored for generations; as a God who is quite distant and very near. It seems that the knowledge unknown to our ancestors was the tremendous power of the Eternal. יהוה is the name The Eternal instructs Moshe to use with us to identify God as the one of our ancestors; to assure us that God knows our suffering, and will redeem us. The Eternal shares the essential nature of God, and restates "I will take you as My people, and I will be Elohim to you..." (6.7). The intimacy of the Hebrew is missed by the translation, accurate as it is. The Eternal is “taking” us as God’s people the way a man “takes a wife.” The Eternal presents a binding relationship. Moshe responds with fear and anxiety. The Eternal reiterates the mission and re-enlists Aharon's assistance.
The text, on behalf of The Eternal, provides an expanded genealogy of the tribe of Leivi, naming Am'ram and Yokheved as the parents of Aharon, Mir’yam and Moshe. Yokheved is the first person named in the Torah whose name includes a shortened name for God. Yo is short for Yah, and Yokheved (יוכבד) means Yah is glorified or Yah’s Glory. The primary purpose of the genealogy appears to be establishing Aharon and Moshe as part of the Levite line and the ones chosen by The Eternal to bring us out of Egypt. We are also introduced to Aharon’s wife, Elisheva, and their sons: Nadav, Avihu, El’azar, and Itamar. We are told the El’azar is married to one of Putiel’s daughters (she is not named), and she bore Pin’khas. Putiel is an Egyptian name, which means that Pin’khas is of mixed heritage.
The Eternal tells Moshe that God "will place you in the role of God to Pharaoh." (7.1) On the surface, it seems to be an extraordinary claim. It makes sense, though, for the Divine representative of The Eternal to have a status equal in stature to that of Pharaoh who believes he is a god. The Eternal also speaks of hardening/stiffening Pharaoh's heart, which is more complicated than it seems. The Eternal is not hardening Pharaoh’s heart on every refusal. This will be a contest of wills (The Eternal and Pharaoh) as well as theocracy (The Eternal and the Egyptian Pantheon) that leads to our liberation. Ten times Pharaoh will get caught in his own stubbornness and ten times The Eternal will intensify his stubbornness.
Moshe and Aharon follow The Eternal's instruction and go to Pharaoh. Aharon throws down his rod and it becomes a serpent. Pharaoh's magicians also cast their rods and they, too, become serpents. Then Aharon's serpent eats the magicians' serpent rods. Pharaoh's heart stiffens, just as said it would. (7.10-13)
At the next visit, Aharon raises his staff and turns the waters of the Nile to blood. Pharaoh's magicians are also able to duplicate this act. So, Pharaoh ignores the bloody water, returning to the palace. (7.22)
A week later, the brothers are instructed to return to Pharaoh and warn him, "If you refuse to let (my people) go, I will plague your whole country with frogs." This, too the sorcerers are able to duplicate. So, Pharaoh's heart stiffens.
Sometime later, Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon, asking them to plead with יהוה to remove the frogs. “I will let you go to sacrifice to יהוה.” Moshe speaks eloquently to Pharaoh, inviting him to name the time for the frogs to end. “Tomorrow,” says Pharaoh. The next day the frogs die in place: the palace, the homes, the courtyards, the fields and the waters. When Pharaoh sees there is relief, he becomes stubborn. (8.4-11)
Next, The Eternal instructs Moshe to tell Aharon to hold “his rod and strike the dust of the earth.” Aharon does so, and all the dust of the land turns into lice that attack humans and beasts. This phenomenon the magicians cannot reproduce. They tell Pharaoh, "This is the finger of Elohim!" Pharaoh's heart stiffens. (8.12-15)
It is poignant to be reading of a leader who cares nothing for his people, including the members of his court.
Swarms of insects are the next affliction. When the swarms hit, Pharaoh has people check to see what is happening in Goshen. Spies report no swarms. Pharaoh attempts a compromise, telling Moshe and Aharon that we can stay in the land (Mitzrayim) and sacrifice to The Eternal. Moshe declines. He argues there are cultural differences that may offend Egyptians (and it's not the true Divine goal!). Pharaoh appears to relent, and again, reneges, once he experiences relief. (8.17-28)
The sixth wonder is soot. Moshe throws it into the air. It turns into a burning dust that causes inflammation on human skin. The magicians are so afflicted, they are unable to even try to match The Eternal's action. This time The Eternal stiffens Pharaoh's heart. (9.8-12)
The Eternal decides to warn Pharaoh and his court of the seventh plague: thunder and hail and fire. Pharaoh pays no heed, but some of his court decide to protect their families, workers, and animals. The destruction is devastating upon what has already been devastated. Once again Pharaoh pleads for relief. Once again, upon experiencing relief, Pharaoh's heart stiffens. (9.12-35)
Shining Light on Our Time
I’m writing on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 and feel moved to speak of current events. Possibly like many of you, a week ago today I was in shock as I watched the Capitol buildings become overrun by a mob. It was even more stunning to realize that my eyes were not betraying me as I watched Capitol Police Officers remove barricades and/or open doors to allow marauders into the buildings. I worked on Capitol Hill for several years as a staff person and as a lobbyist. I couldn’t understand how the very people who are charged with protecting the Capitol were abetting traitors. How could the Capitol Police be so underprepared that they hadn’t anticipated the disruption and the need for some people to be on notice?!
I thought about the Members of Congress and their staff as well as the others experiencing their workplace threatened by people intent on mischief and unknown nefarious acts. I saw another group chase a Black Capitol Police Captain up several flights of stairs. What I did not know, and was later told, is that when he got to the top of the 5th set of stairs, there were three more CP officers – all White. The observer reported a hesitancy in all of them. Something was said and they turned around together to handle the mob.
It is poignant to be reading of a leader who cares nothing for his people, including the members of his court. Pharaoh summons and dismisses Moshe and Aharon, according to his needs. He will say or do anything to get relief from the discomfort he experiences. Once he has relief, his word means nothing.
Those of you who have studied Sh’mot may already understand that Pharaoh, the human God leader of Egypt, is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and other caste systems. Each has its hierarchy of isms. Each entity within such systems yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure it faces. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence.
Many people, including President-Elect Biden – and perhaps you, are saying “This is not our country!” What a world that would be! If only that were true. The history of this destructive force is as old as our country. We are a country that tried and failed to enslave Indigenous people, then stole people from Africa to enslave them. Then later, we raided the treasuries of nation-states and tribal communities, and the national resources of the lands. Once the importation of slaves ended, the Senate created rules which allowed the slave holding states to defeat all attempts to end slavery. After our Civil War, those same rules allowed Southern States to beat back Civil Rights legislation, until 1964. (In between, Indigenous people were forced off their lands to control desired resources, Black Americans lost all rights gained after the Civil War, extrajudicial killings were so commonplace that lynching postcards were considered souvenirs, signage throughout the South and Southwest clarified who was welcome, and much, much more.) It wasn’t long before appealing to White grievance became a tiring-strategy of the Republican party, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a tiring-strategy of the Democratic party!
To heal our country is to own our collective and individual complexity.
My point for Mr. President-Elect and you, my dear reader, is that healing can only truly occur if we do the hard work of holding “yes, and…” instead of “either/or.” To heal our country is to own our collective and individual complexity. We need to commit to having a democracy that leaves no one behind: NOT ONE PERSON. As long as any collection of individuals or a group are on their own to remain targets of hate and discrimination, we will not be a free and safe society. As long as there is a plurality of people on whose labor we depend and want to pay the least, we will never know true economic security or realize the drag that assumed poverty has on our economy.
Over the next few weeks as we move through Sh’mot/Exodus, we will see, and therefore be reminded, that the journey to true freedom is not easy; that we must do internal as well as collective work. Yet, it is precisely because freedom takes work that we must persist in the work it requires. I believe the more we embrace “yes, and…” we will see possibilities and imagine solutions which were previously unavailable to us. Or, were available but seemed too fantastical for serious consideration. The limit to the success of our ideas will always be our willingness to be stopped by our own or another’s “no.”
This Week's Lessons, Reflections, and Practices
The Big Picture: For many years, I thought the genealogies were interesting and lacked depth because they rarely mentioned women and early translations only “begot” sons, instead of translating b'nai as sons and daughters as in more recent translations. In the last few years I've come to understand them as bridges and/or telescopes. The genealogy in Va-era serves both purposes. The text wants us to see the context that holds Moshe, Aharon, and Mir'yam.
Though it says, "These are the heads of their fathers' houses," it focuses on R'uvein, Shim’on, and Leivi, the three eldest sons of Yisrael. The three appear to stand for some of what is needed for personal and national transformation. R'uvein was demoted by Yisrael on the latter's deathbed due to Yaakov’s judgment of his past behavior, and R'uvein also showed courageous vulnerability to save Bin'yamin. (Breisheet 44.18-34) Rising to the occasion, despite or because of one's imperfections, is required throughout our lives to move forward with integrity. Shim’on and Leivi’s violent anger is cursed by Yaakov (they killed all the men of Shekhem), but he does not curse them. (Breisheet 49.5-7) Anger is an important emotion, and it cannot lead; something that Moshe will have to learn much, much later. Making a distinction between a person and troublesome behavior is important in nurturing transformation. No human being is dispensable.
Practice 1: Think about those who have parented you. What are the traits and values that you admire? Find problematic? How, if at all, does either occur in you or others in your family? What, if anything, within yourself would you like to transform?
Anger: (Shared with permission) As a friend's mom was dying, family dynamics created an opportunity for her and her son to discuss anger and its history in her and her son's family of origin and each of their current families. Among the discoveries was the independent and parallel steps they each had taken to gain peace within themselves, to relate differently to their anger, so that they could relate differently to themselves and the world. "The biggest discovery for me was that we both started with being kinder to ourselves. It was a fascinating and healing conversation for both of us."
Practice 2: If you are interested in examining your relationship to anger, contemplate your feelings about anger, including how you experience it within you, and how you receive and perceive it in another; others. What, if any, are the ways you are unkind to yourself? What would it mean if you were kinder to yourself? How does anger serve you? How does anger take from you? If you are someone who avoids anger, how is that working for you? Consider how anger occurred/occurs within your family of origin, adoption, fostering, or choice. What can you glean from the reflection about your relationship to anger? Note: This practice is a journey, not a destination. It's best not to do it all at once. If you are comfortable, invite someone you trust to journey with you.
Claiming One's Voice; Agency: I know it's scary to claim one's voice. In claiming my voice, I claim my agency. In claiming my agency, I make myself visible to others, some of whom may see my visibility as an intrusion or threat.
Claiming his voice is the first lesson Moshe must learn to be the person, the leader The Eternal sees and needs him to be. Moshe's protestations about his speech indicate that he fumbles with words. That can come across as stuttering. It is also an indication that someone doesn't trust what they have to say, or that they don't trust that what they have to say will be heard. Confident that The Eternal has Pharaoh's attention due to the frogs, Moshe—without instruction—allows Pharaoh to set the time for the frogs' departure. The Eternal honors Moshe's deal. (8.5-7) After swarms of insects overrun the palace, Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aharon to say they can sacrifice to The Eternal within the land. Again, without instruction, Moshe rejects Pharaohs proposal and warns Pharaoh not to act deceitfully with his counter proposal. (8.21-25) Moshe has claimed his voice and improved his ability to communicate.
Practice 3: What is your relationship to your agency? Do you own it and take it for granted? If that has always been so, what allows, permits you to be able to do so? If owning your agency is something you had to learn, have you found a place of ease with it? Are you still approaching agency as a struggle? If you were able to guide someone to agency, how would you approach it? If you are guiding one or more people to agency, what are you learning about yourself?
Practice 4: If you are someone struggling to claim or reclaim your voice, what is one of the stories (Haggadot) you have created regarding your lack of agency? In reviewing your Haggadah, what are the internal constrictions or narrow places (Mitzrayim) to which your story points? What are the resources you have, or need, to aid you in transforming your Haggadah or Haggadot?
Tell all Pharaohs: As stated above, Pharaoh is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and its resulting hierarchy of isms. Each entity yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence.
Practice 5: Think about the systems in which you operate. When it comes to others' pleading for relief and others' hardening to protect systems and status quo, who are you? How do you use your voice; your agency? If you are among those pleading, what is your experience with another's hardening? How do you maintain your humanity? How are you managing the situation(s)?
Practice 6: How and/or what are you being called to contribute? Who do you have to be to contribute that gift? What story would you have to give up? What learnings would you have to take on? From whom or where would you learn?
 The original version of this commentary appeared on the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s website in 5780/2020.  Women’s Torah Commentary, page 337.  Louis Armstrong’s version of “Let My People Go.”
© Sabrina Sojourner 2021