God kicks Parsha Vaera off with a reminder to Moses about His covenant with the Israelites––Moses’ ancestors. A sentiment from the previous Parsha is repeated, that God hears the moaning of the Israelites because of the whole trapped in bondage thing and this makes Him remember His covenant with the Israelites.
Again, no answer to the question I was left with after the previous Parsha: HOW MANY COVENANTS HAVE YOU MADE, GOD!? How could You forget?
This isn’t the only bit of Parsha Vaera that brings about obvious questions.
Parsha Vaera tells a familiar story that any amateur Jew will recognize. Much of the text focuses on the plagues. You’ve got your Nile turned to blood, lice, boils––and so on. The big kahuna of plagues is not in this Parsha.
Rather than rehash the specifics of those plagues, I’m more interested in focusing on what God foresees happening and Pharaoh’s reaction. First, let’s have a look at God.
In Chapter 7, God rehashes His plan to set the Israelites free. As we read in last week’s Parsha Shemot, God says that despite all of the plagues He’ll send, He “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 chastisements.”
God sounds like a vindictive magician here. His ultimate goal is to keep His covenant with the Israelites––that covenant He ‘oopsie-poopsie’ forgot while we wailed in bondage––and deliver them to the Promised Land. To do that, Pharaoh needs to witness the power of the God of the Israelites.
By saying He will harden Pharaoh’s heart to stop him from freeing the Israelites, God seems to acknowledge that it wouldn’t take much––at least relative to God’s all-mighty powers––to scare Pharaoh into letting them go. Otherwise, why would Pharaoh’s heart need to be hardened?
So why would God want to keep the Israelites in bondage that much longer? “…that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.”
WTF, God? I mean, who’s the main villain in this story? Is it Pharaoh or the one who forgot His promise and is yet willing to prolong this thing for the sake of, apparently, ego?
Imagine a firefighter climbing a ladder up to a burning apartment, ready to rescue someone trapped underneath a table. But when they get up there, they see that the victim is no longer trapped and ready to go. Instead of getting the victim out of there, the firefighter says: “Hold on! Allow me to first show you all of the cool things I learned in firefighter training!” Meanwhile, the victim is inhaling smoke at the expense of the firefighter wanting to show off.
How can you read “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” as anything other than God’s ego getting the best of Him? Is God the savior, delivering us to the Promised Land or Robin Williams’ Genie?
As The Lord Had Said
Because God is determined to draw out slavery in Egypt for the sake of showing off, things play out just “as the Lord had said.” There’s a dueling banjos of sorts between Moses and Aaron versus Pharao’s magicians. Moses and Aaron do or say something that God commands them to do or say to Pharaoh, God gets a chance to show off His powers, and then He immediately stiffens Pharaoh’s heart so that the show can go on a bit longer.
There have been some attempts to wrestle with this moral dilemma in the Torah; the idea that God prolonged Israelite suffering by stiffening Pharaoh’s heart. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg summarized some of these arguments over at My Jewish Learning. In her piece, she points out that Pharaoh had already hardened his own heart before God played His part, citing a number of verses in the Torah.
However you read it, it seems impossible to get around the fact that God Himself indicates He has the power to end this little spiel sooner rather than later––and opts for later.
No Take Backs
Allow me to put my obvious issue with Exodus God to the side for a moment to focus on another interesting bit in this Parsha that doesn’t necessarily make God look like a dick. Twice, Pharaoh vows to let the Israelites go after God unleashes one of the plagues––or His “marvels.” And twice, Pharaoh takes it back.
It’s written, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.”
This reminds me of the very many times I––and I’m sure you, too, reader––have made promises in difficult times to change my behavior in some way if another thing went my way, only to forget that promise I made to myself once that trouble was gone. I shouldn’t need to read Torah to understand that that’s a dishonest, dumb way to live, but hopefully, that lesson sticks with me now to keep my promises to myself, lest I want to become my own Pharaoh.
Okay, now back to Exodus God being a dick.
“Thwart My People”
After a bit of back-and-forth with Pharaoh, God appears to get frustrated. He instructs Moses to recount to Pharaoh what’s happened so far, with respect to the plagues, how God could’ve treated Pharaoh much more harshly, and He tries to paint Himself as a rather benevolent figure, saying “Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.”
But is it really benevolence if the motive behind it was to become famous?
God’s monologue via Moses continues: “Yet you continue to thwart My people, and do not let them go!”
Hold up, God. Yet Pharaoh continues to thwart Your people? Who’s the one who said Pharaoh’s heart will continue to harden, refusing to let the Israelites go so that a certain someone can show off a bit more and become famous? Do you need a mirror, God?
God’s apparent inferiority complex doesn’t really get touched on. Instead, we move on to another plague––thundering hail this time––ending with Pharaoh again promising to let the Israelites go if Moses can just convince his God to cut it out. And again, once Pharaoh senses relief, he goes back on his promise––setting up the scene for one last doozy of a plague.
Onward with Parsha Bo.