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B'nei Mitzvah of the Week

Ella Greenfield

January 25, 2020

Parashat Va-eira - Exodus 6:2−9:35

  • Despite God's message that they will be redeemed from slavery, the Israelites' spirits remain crushed. God instructs Moses and Aaron to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:2-13)
  • The genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and their descendants is recorded. (6:14-25)
  • Moses and Aaron perform a miracle with a snake and relate to Pharaoh God's message to let the Israelites leave Egypt. (7:8-13)
  • The first seven plagues occur. God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh rescinds each offer to let the Israelites go. (7:14-9:35)

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Ella's Interpretation

​​​​​​​In my Torah portion Va-eira, things don’t exactly start off so great for the Israelites. They are all enslaved in Egypt, forced to labor in the burning Egyptian sun, ruled over by a stubborn and uncaring Pharaoh. For them, freedom seemed like only a dream.

The events in my Parsha bring freedom to the Isrealites, but only after God delivers one misery after another to the Pharaoh and his people. This was a historic time for the Israelites, but it came at a price.

God gave very specific instructions to Moses. He said:

"You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from this land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people, the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary plagues."

My key question is: why would God harden Pharaoh's heart, if that only makes things worse for everyone? It’s more difficult or the Israelites because they have to work longer for their freedom. And it’s more difficult for the Egyptians, because they have to suffer through the plagues. Why would God put everyone through this?

The Pharaoh, being the stubborn man he is, turns his head on all the Israelites pleading, and begging for freedom and denies them any rights. So, as promised, God decides to step in and help the Israelites by sending plagues. Each time a plague is sent, the Pharaoh's heart quickly hardens up, and he says no, resulting in more suffering for everyone. This pattern continues ten times!

I believe that the Pharaoh was originally very stubborn. In fact, even before the Torah talks about God intervening with the plagues, the text describes how hard the Pharaoh's heart already is on its own. Finding comfort in his life of riches, and benefitting from enslavement of the Israelites all around him. God chooses this moment to be an example to many generations, to show not just Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but all of us, what happens when we are blind to suffering. God hardened Pharaoh's heart so the people will be able to open their eyes and see the world more clearly. The Ramban, a medieval rabbi, also suggests God is punishing Pharoah directly for his arrogance by hardening his heart. Pharaoh thought of himself as a God. This is not ok, especially because being a leader you are being the example for others to follow. God sets the Pharaoh straight, showing that he is almighty and nobody is or was ever more powerful than him.

I believe this story is more than a history lesson in the Torah but a life lesson we can benefit from every day. God teaches us that we should never harden our own hearts. When someone is suffering you should really listen to them, and do all you can to help them. We need to be willing to help others who are suffering and try our best not to expect a life of privilege like Pharaoh, but to be equal to others. Our actions, from the biggest to the smallest, all make a difference.

So what does this tell us today? If you see a person begging on the street you have the option to cross the street and simply pretend they don't exist. But an action as small as this hardens your heart each time, and it will add up. You have other, kinder, options. Today, around the world, there are still people looking to be free. It may be more convenient not to listen, and to go on with our lives. We can learn from Pharaoh’s horrible actions thousands of years ago. It's time to soften our hearts.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg put it this way:

“When we make the choice to turn away from suffering, when we engage in the action of walking away from others’ pain, we impact our inner life -- our own heart is hardened, we become estranged from the divine and from our own holiest self... But there’s a cost to that turning away.”


Ella's Mitzvah Project

I agree with Rabbi Ruttenburg, and I have tried hard not to look away from suffering and to keep my heart soft. For my mitzvah project I volunteered at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, caring for animals that had suffered terribly before finding homes there. The work was hard, and sometimes smelly, but also extremely touching. I learned to recognize gratitude in the face of a goat when I put down fresh hay, but in the end I was the one who was grateful for the experience we shared.

Sun, January 26 2020 29 Tevet 5780