Parashat Vaera is all action: The first six plagues descend on Egypt and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Vaera come in two sets of three plagues each. In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third. And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.
Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal is what we often remember from this series of events (even my 4-year-old child knows to sing, “No, no, no, I will not let them go” at this point in the story). However, in Exodus 7:3 it is actually God who says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This statement raises a fascinating question: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s obstinacy?
The plagues are not only intended to crush the Egyptian slave masters and cruel king into submission in order to free the slaves, but they also provide evidence of God’s power to an enslaved people.
It is critical to remember that at this point, the Israelites have been slaves for over 400 years. They are accustomed to oppression and all that comes with it — lack of choice and agency, demoralization, and dehumanization. And they are used to not having God around. A far cry from Abraham or Joseph’s personal relationships with God, God is conspicuously absent during the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. And this absence lasts enough generations for the tales of their ancestors to fade from familiarity into distant legend.
The Israelites, maybe even more than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, desperately need proof of God’s power and might. The plagues unite them, not only as an oppressed people accustomed to life’s cruelty, but also as a people on the verge of liberation. These first plagues are those first glimmers of hope. It’s a brilliant strategic move by God who understands that the Israelites can’t be expected to just will themselves out of Egypt; they need inspiration and guidance. Parshat Vaera provides the essential stepping stones toward the freedom we know is just over the horizon.
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director and director of year-round programs at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past eight years.