Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 13 January 2018 / 26 Tevet 5778

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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From Nadir to Nation

The beginning of our parasha marks a critical turning point in the history of the Jewish people. At the end of last week’s parasha, Moshe complains to the Almighty: Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has abused the people even more, and You have not rescued Your people. G-d responds, telling Moshe to brace himself for the events that will unfold: Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh. Before this new order comes to be, G-d speaks to Moshe: I am HASHEM. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as EL SHADAI, but did not become known to them by my name HASHEM.

From the time of Avraham until now there had been a steady descent: Avraham was regarded as a prince of G-d in the Land, whereas Yaakov was an unfortunate servant of Lavan, whose life was punctuated by colossal challenges. Ultimately, the sale of Yosef and unrelenting famine forced the House of Yaakov to move to Egypt, where they multiplied under the frightening grip of Egyptian slavery.

It could have been otherwise. Avraham could have had a child in his prime years, and could have overseen the flourishing of his progeny in happy, favorable circumstances on its native soil. But if the Jewish nation had emerged in this way, the people would not have become G-d’s people. Instead, like all peoples, they would have been rooted in physical foundations. They would have sought material power and material greatness, aspiring to the spiritual and moral only to the extent that these were compatible with, and beneficial to, its material aims.

The birth of the nation of G-d had to be founded solely on G-d and His law, and not on any other earthly hold. To fulfill its mandate of reawakening mankind and releasing it from the bonds of materialism, Israel had to be poor in everything upon which the rest of mankind builds its greatness. Israel had to begin at the climax of despair. Moshe is baffled by the downward spiral, and G-d reassures him that this was all deliberate: I appeared to Avraham, Yitzckak and Yaakov as EL SHADAI, the All-Sufficing One, with Whose help one can endure all the vicissitudes of life. I had not revealed Myself to them, as I do now, as HASHEM, The Sole Creator, Judge and Master of history and nature. The curtain is about to be drawn, and as this defenseless and pitiful nation emerges as directly sustained and redeemed by G-d, it stands center stage in the play of history.

Indeed, this act will repeat itself time and again, to a different audience in each generation. The protagonist, the people of HASHEM, small and downtrodden, will beat the odds, manifestly overcoming all opposing forces, revealing the Master of history and nature to all of mankind.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 6:3; Nineteen Letters, #7

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