Parashat Va’era

Last week’s parasha ends badly for the Israelites, Moses and Aaron. After Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to demand from Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go so that they may worship God in the desert. Pharaoh feels that the Israelites – the slave class – is getting restless, and has enough leisure time to think about their situation, which could prove dangerous. As a result, Pharaoh decrees that the Israelites will hence forth collect their own raw materials, in addition to making their regular quota of bricks. The Israelites are distraught, and get angry with Moses and Aaron who upset the status quo. Moses questions God, who sent him on a mission that so far has only worsened the Israelites’ condition. But God remains confident, and tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send you out and with a strong hand he will expel you from his land” (Exodus 6:1).

God assures Moses that everything is going according to plan: “Therefore, tell the Children of Israel: I am God, and I will take you out of the abuses of Egypt, and I will save you from your labors, and I will redeem you with an outstretched hand and with great displays. And I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the suffering of Egypt. And I will bring you to the land that I have decided to give Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance, I am God.” (Exodus 6:6-8)

The power structure of the relationship is clear. God is the savior; the Israelites are the victims. God is strong and capable; the Israelites cannot help themselves.

One of the running metaphors throughout the Bible and the Rabbinic commentary to it compares the relationship between God and the Israelites to a romantic relationship, where God is the man and the Israelites are the woman. Giving the Torah on Mount Sinai is seen as the marriage ceremony; the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, as a punishment for upsetting God, is recounted as a gesture of love and dedication that was performed by the Israelites for God: “I am recalling in your favor the kindness of your youth, the love of your honeymoon days, when you followed me in the desert, in an unsown land” (Jeremiah 2:2).

The other running metaphor sees God as the father and the Israelites as the first born child: In last week’s parasha, for example, Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh “Israel is my first-born son, and I am telling you: send my son so that he can worship me. And if you refuse to send him, here I am killing your first-born son” (Exodus 4:22-23).

The common thread between these two relationships is that Israelites did not have a choice in choosing God as their God. Clearly, a son cannot choose his father. But even in the romantic relationship, as it is described, the Israelites were not free to choose their partner. In this week’s parasha it is clear that the Israelites cannot save themselves; only when God enters the picture do they have any chance of extricating themselves from their bad situation. The Israelites are entirely passive. During the marriage ceremony – God giving the Torah on Mount Sinai – the Rabbinic commentary reads between the lines the power imbalance in the relationship: “God placed the mountain over their head like a barrel, and told them: If you accept the Torah, good. If not, here will be your burial place” (Bavli Shabbat 81a).

***

What are the ramifications for the Israelites of being in a relationship that they did not choose, and what are the ramifications for God of forcing the Israelites into a relationship without leaving them a choice in the matter? First, the Israelites are unfaithful to God, over and over. In fact, immediately after the marriage ceremony, the Israelites are already looking for something else, and build the golden calf.

But God also suffers. We see this most clearly in the book of Hosea. In the first chapter of the book, God orders Hosea to marry and prostitute, to symbolize God taking the whoring Israelites has His people. Hosea’s wife bears him a so, named “not my people”; and a daughter, named “not graced” (Hosea 1:1-6). But in the second chapter, where God offers a vision for the end of days the hurt that the Israelites cause God begins creeping in:

“But quarrel with your mother, for she is not my woman, and I am not her man. She should remove her whorings from her face and her infidelities from her bosom, lest I strip her down naked, and I shall present her like the day she was born, and I shall turn her out like a desert, and I shall make her wander like an arid land, and I shall make her die of thirst. And her sons I will not grace, for they are sons of whoring. For their mother has whored, she has dishonored their instruction, for she said: ‘I shall go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my wine.’

Therefore, I will strew thorns upon your path, and I shall fence in her enclosure, and she shall not find her way. And she shall chase after her lovers and she will not reach them, and she shall ask for them but will not find them, and she’ll say: ‘I’ll go back and return to my first man, because it was better for me then than now.’ And she didn’t know that I am the one who gave her the grain, and the wine, and the oil, and I gave her much silver; but she gave gold to Ba’al. Therefore, I will go back and take my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will retrieve my wool and my linen that covers her nakedness. And now, I will uncover her indecency to the eyes of her lovers, and no one will save her from my hand. And I will terminate all of her rejoicing: her festivals, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all of her holidays. And I will decimate her vines and her fig trees, of which she said: ‘They are a token from my lovers.’ And I shall make them grow wild, and the beasts of the field shall eat them. And I shall count against her the days of the Ba’als to whom she burned incense, and she would adorn her rings and her jewelry and go after her lovers, but me she has forgotten, so says the Lord.

Therefore behold, I will seduce her, and I shall take her out to the desert, and I shall speak to her heart. I shall give her her vineyards from that place, and the valley of bleakness to an opening of hope, and she shall be responsive there like in the days of her youth, and like the day that she rose out of Egypt. And on that day, by the word of God, she will call me her man; and she will no longer call me her owner. And I will remove the names of the other Be’alim (ba’al=owner=husband=other deities), and they will no longer be mentioned by name. And I will make an oath with the animal of the land and the foul of the sky and the rodent of the earth, and bow and sword and war I will purge from the land, and I shall lie them down to safety. And I shall betroth you to me forever, and I shall betroth you to me in righteousness and justice and kindness and compassion. And I shall betroth you to me in faith, and you shall know God.” (Hosea 2:4-22)

God’s initial reaction is, as usual, anger and a desire for revenge. As the passage progresses, however, God decides to take a different tactic. After all, this is a passage describing the happy resolution to the relationship between God and the Israelites at the end of days. The Israelites must break their pattern of behavior, as they are told numerous times in numerous places in the Bible. But here, for once, God realized that he, too, must break his pattern. Instead of just becoming angry, and continuing the negative cycle, he will try to “speak to Israel’s heart”.

Remember that this week’s parasha (and last week’s parasha) describe the utter helplessness of the Israelites. They are victims who need saving by God, and therefore, when God decides to enter into a relationship with them, they have no choice but to agree to its terms, as the famous Rabbinic commentary mentioned above makes clear. As a result, the Israelites’ relationship with God is tumultuous, to say the least. Here, we see, for the first time, God recognizing that a relationship cannot be forced. He must recognize the Israelites’ agency in order to be able to build with them a relationship of “righteousness, justice, compassion, kindness, and faith.”

And these verses – “And I shall betroth you…” – are read every morning with the wrapping of the leather bands of the tefillin. As we symbolically bind ourselves to and before God, we recall the possibility for a relationship based on a recognition of our agency.

And interestingly, this is one of the only (the only?) place in the Bible where the exodus is described with the Israelites playing an active role: “she rose out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:17). No more “I took you out;” the Israelites are finally recognized as being agents in their own destiny. And only then – after having recognized the fundamental agency of the Israelites – can the relationship be fixed.

*Obviously, this still being a patriarchal text, the recognition of the Israelites’ agency is imperfect. The resolution is still God betrothing the Israelites to him, i.e. taking the active role while the Israelites take the passive role; and the phrase that I translated as “she shall be responsive there like in the days of her youth” uses a verb whose root elsewhere corresponds with the verb “to torture” or “to rape.” But it’s still a start.

One thought on “Parashat Va’era

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s