25 January 2017
This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira, the second parsha in the Book of Exodus, and contains 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 conflict 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 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. In calling up the plagues, Moses was obeying God’s commands.
The age-old challenge is for us to recognize that the purpose of religion is to serve God, not to use and seek to manipulate God; trying to understand what God wants us to do rather than praying to God when we want something from God. We are tempted to pray for miracles, winning lottery tickets and even for football victories (Go Patriots!). Kushner argues that this presupposes a world in which God is our servant. It’s really the other way around.