07 January 2016
This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira, the second parasha in the Book of Exodus, containing the famous Ten Plagues. Last week, Pharaoh mocked Moses when he insisted that the Israelites be set free: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?” asked Pharaoh. “I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.”
This week, Pharaoh learns more than he ever cared to know about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the struggle between Pharaoh and Moses is really a struggle between paganism and monotheism; between two very different ways of understanding our relationship with God. Rabbi Harold Kushner contends that this struggle continues, even to this day. During the competition between Pharaoh’s magicians and Moses, Kushner notes that the magicians sought to manipulate the gods of Egypt to do what they wanted, while Moses obeyed God’s command to call up the plagues. Today’s challenge is to recognize that the purpose of religion is to serve God, not to use and manipulate Him.
We are tempted to pray for benign things such as winning lottery tickets, doing well on tests and for miracles in our own lives. There are far too many who invoke God’s name for personal, political, nationalistic or even terroristic purposes, using God to justify horrific acts against others. This presupposes a world in which God is our servant rather than the other way around. That is the world which Pharaoh and his magicians imagined, but failed to create.
Authentic Jewish behavior seeks to understand what God wants us to do rather than summoning God when we want something from Him.