1. Home
  2. Shemos | Exodus
  3. Vaeira

Choreographed Futility

4 minute read
Straightforward

Towards the beginning of the Exodus story, God gives Moshe his great mission.

Moshe initially resists and says that the Jewish People will not listen to him. Although our sages criticize him for this, he demonstrates that he is highly attuned to his environment because, sure enough, that’s precisely what happens:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – But when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (6:9)

Exactly as Moshe had predicted, they didn’t listen, and this theatre only caused Moshe and his exhausted people unnecessary aggravation, disappointment, and frustration. It’s hard to see this as anything other than choreographed futility – a colossal waste of time, energy, and effort on all counts from the very outset.

This is consistent with a broader motif throughout the entire Torah, filled as it is with so many aborted attempts, failed efforts, and wasted opportunities.

Generally speaking, it is usually worth giving something a go, because you never know; but in this instance, everyone did know – they knew it wasn’t going to work!

Moshe knew they wouldn’t listen. God knew they wouldn’t listen. Yet God sent Moshe anyway. Why would God bother sending Moshe on an exercise in futility?

The Sfas Emes teaches that there is no such thing as futility when trying to help people. This particular chapter of the story illustrates that it’s never one specific interaction that has an instantaneous magical breakthrough effect; the helper must persist. Words can take root even if they don’t immediately blossom and yield fruit; the lack of immediate and apparent results doesn’t mean the efforts are wasted.

The Netziv highlights how the Torah is replete with phases and stages that indicate gradual transformation; for example, there are five expressions of redemption, ten plagues, and each phase of Dayeinu.

Let’s remember that we are reading the Exodus story, the grandest redemption story in history to date, and this is how it starts. Moshe is frustrated, his people are hurting and spent, and he can’t get them to entertain the dream or notion that things could change for the better. Not even the most legendary redemption story has an instant turning point or pivotal moment; it starts like this – boring and painfully slow. Nothing happens! On Seder night, we celebrate the great miracles, but maybe we should read these few lines as well and remember what change actually looks like, not only in our daily lived experience but as attested to in the Torah’s own words.

The Chizkuni suggests that it’s not that they wouldn’t listen, but that they couldn’t; they were structurally and systemically too traumatized to have the mental or physical capacity to hold on to hope. And even so, God sends Moshe to them with words that are not lost to the ether. Even if they can’t internalize the message, it is objectively important that they see Moshe trying to help them, that they hear the words; and accordingly, that we hear that interaction through the ages as well. There are times a person is so stuck that they don’t want to be saved; and still, you can’t abandon them.

Right after this unsuccessful effort to encourage his people, Moshe reports back to God, and a nonchalant God tells them straightforwardly that their mission is going ahead on schedule and as planned:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וַיְצַוֵּם אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶל־פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – But Moshe appealed to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” So God spoke to both Moshe and Ahron regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:12,13)

But what follows this powerful reaffirmation of the mission isn’t a renewal or redoubling of efforts. The Torah interrupts this story mid-paragraph with a tangential breakdown of the heritage and lineage of the Jewish families in Egypt in exhaustive detail.

It’s unclear what this breakdown is doing in this story, but perhaps it ties into the notion of efforts not going to waste.

The Ishbitzer teaches that in the instant we choose to pray, before uttering a word, God is poised to listen, which is to say, God responds before we have reached out. In the physical world, Moshe tried to encourage the Jewish People, but they couldn’t hear him. But in the spiritual world, which is to say the world of the spirit, the Torah tells us who they were and where they came from, that they were descendants of Yisrael. Perhaps their identity could be a hook Moshe’s words latched on to in their intangible subconscious.

Moshe’s words weren’t futile because they don’t exist in isolation; they pooled into a more extensive relationship full of interactions, and this was just one of many. They weren’t futile because change happens gradually, incrementally, and slowly. They weren’t futile because they still register on a subconscious level. They weren’t futile because they were the Children of Israel, and he was going to save them and stand with them at Sinai. They weren’t futile because the people needed to see someone show them that they were worth fighting for, and we need to recognize that as well.

We read about this ostensibly failed interaction, and it’s blindingly obvious that although the words might not have landed perfectly, these efforts were anything but futile.

Nothing ever happens in a day. In the words of Steve Jobs, most overnight successes take a really long time.

God sent Moshe to talk to people when everyone knew it wouldn’t change a thing, but this failed interaction goes on to form a part of a foundation that all future growth and progress can be built upon. It’s not wasted breath; it’s an investment in posterity.

Time and again, we expect ultimate salvation, a moment everything changes and turns around, and we get disappointed because the world doesn’t work like that. God very deliberately sends Moshe on a mission he already knows he cannot possibly succeed at, highlighting to Moshe and to us that apparent failure and setbacks are not futile. God sends Moshe because humble beginnings and failed efforts are independently valuable, regardless of the outcome.

If you’ve clashed with someone in a relationship that matters to you, you know that you can’t fix things with a good one-liner. No single idea or thought will make them suddenly understand, no light bulb will turn on that changes everything. Reality is far more modest than that; each kind word and positive interaction is a deposit into an account balance that barely seems to grow at the start. It’s painfully slow, frustrating, and it doesn’t look like progress; sometimes it even looks like a step backwards.

If you’re stuck in trouble and can’t hear a kind word, hold on. If you’re trying to help someone who won’t hear or see it, keep it up.

It wasn’t futile then, it’s not futile now.

The Universal and the Particular

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus story is long and complex, with many different stages. The Ten Plagues took place over the course of a year or so, but it wouldn’t have been any less cool or impressive to rescue the Jewish People in the space of a day. The theatre of a long and drawn-out Ten Plagues is deliberate then, rather than miraculously magic the Jewish People out or flatten Egypt instantly.

Why did God take His time saving the Jewish People?

If the goal is to save the Jewish People, then the question is a great question; God should have done it as quickly and efficiently as possible!

The story plainly states that saving the Jewish People was not God’s only priority, that God had other goals as well. Among others, the Torah states that as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God, Egypt must come to understand this as well – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה. Beyond simple comeuppance or karma, more than punishment or vengeance for centuries of oppression, God deems it independently necessary for Egypt to recognize the One God.

When the vanquished Egyptian army drifted in the waves of the Red Sea, the Jews celebrated, and the Midrash imagines how the angels in Heaven attempted to applaud the great salvation as well, but God would not tolerate it- “Shall angels sing while My creations drown?!”

Quite obviously, God’s analysis fundamentally differs from ours – כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם.

The conclusion of the book of Jonah carries a similar sentiment, where God admonishes Jonah for caring about his narrow corner of the world without caring for a metropolis full of people and animals simply because they aren’t his countrymen:

וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה – “Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who don’t yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?!”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that one of our liturgy’s sharpest prayers about Gentiles, the request at the Seder for God to pour out His wrath on them over our exile – שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם – is qualified with the caveat of those who do not recognize God – אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. 

From its earliest moments and consistently throughout, God’s goal has never been to save the Jewish People to the exclusion of greater humanity. The Torah’s utopian vision for the world has consistently been a universal one where all humans recognize God – בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּים / וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ / וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ.

While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to its furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle. The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for Jews; the Gemara and the Rambam emphatically affirm that Gentiles go to the same places we do when we die.

God doesn’t whisk the Jewish People out of Egypt and into freedom in an instant because that is not what God wants from our universe.

We would do well to remember that as much as our people have a sacred mission, the rest of the world matters and serves God’s purposes too, just in a different way.

The Strength to Carry On

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah describes how Pharaoh resists Moshe’s requests to let his people go, and so God sends waves of plagues. At multiple points in the Exodus story, Pharaoh is ready to cave and concede, when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the resolve to avoid doing the right thing, delaying the Jewish People’s eventual liberation.

Once he was ready to concede, what was the point of hardening his heart?

The Sforno suggests a compelling answer.

One of the keys to correctly understanding the Exodus story is that getting the Jewish People out of Egypt was not the exclusive goal. It demands nothing of God to flatten Egypt or magic the Jews out. Instead, lots of other things happen that aren’t reducible to the goals of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People. The Exodus, like Creation, was not instantaneous; it was a deliberately gradual and incremental process.

There are two words the Torah uses to describe what happens to Pharaoh’s heart: strength and heaviness – כבד / חזק. Where Hashem acts directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gives him the strength to carry on.

The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה’, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – “Egypt will know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand over Egypt and take the Jews from them.” (7:17)

We’ve read this story a few times, and our eyes glaze over because we know it a little too well, and we ought to remember that at this point in the story, no one knows what God can do – not Moshe, and certainly not Pharaoh. The Jewish People only know they are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believe in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Quite arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood, which had almost no survivors. So with good reason, Pharaoh mocked Moshe:

מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – “Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go!” (5:2)

So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people were rightly terrified, and so Pharaoh needed strength to continue. If he tried to save Egypt out of fear of destruction, that would be the wrong reason! So God gave Pharaoh the resolve to withstand his own fear, up to the seventh plague.

But after the seventh plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Pharaoh concedes entirely:

וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Pharaoh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)

Egypt has been educated – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה – but this is not the end. With three more plagues to come, God tells Moshe that he has a new audience now:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

Now it is about the Jewish People -‘ וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי-אֲנִי ה.

Now, the Jewish People need to understand what Hashem would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought against a life of miracles for the rest of their days. But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.

God cares about us all, and God will do something about it.

You are Worthy

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.

What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite. 

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is often framed as a point of pride, but the point would seem to be that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were otherwise indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s strong outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God doing something that is undeserved. God does not require more incremental strength to move a grape than a galaxy; but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you have to remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

Pharaoh’s Responsibility

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of religion and morality is free will.

With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah. If humans can’t deliberately choose between right and wrong, there can be no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them; if you are bad, it’s not your fault because being good is impossible.

The Exodus story poses a problem to this, however.

Throughout the story, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and so Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Pharaoh’s free will was hopelessly compromised; how was punishing Pharaoh deserved or fair?

Maimonides’s exposition of free will explains that it is possible to do something so bad egregious that the path of making amends and repentance is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back to where they once were.

We understand this; there is an old folk saying that the axe forgets; but the tree remembers, meaning that the person who hurts another forgets but the person who gets hurt will not. Someone abusive can reform themselves, regret their actions, and resolve never to hurt another person again, and they should do all those things! But the point is, they can only hope to find a new path; they can never return to their old one, and that’s what happened to Pharaoh. 

Pharaoh’s government enslaved, tortured, and murdered people, particularly children; justice itself required that he be prevented from making amends.

Pharaoh was so far down his path of madness and violence that he could not see or hear his people suffering, and his adviser’s pleas fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – “Do you not see that Egypt is already lost?” (10:7)

Contemporary psychology might call this a form of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling you experience when two of your beliefs are in conflict. When confronted with challenging new information, people may seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information, or convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. We can lie to ourselves to justify bad decisions and hypocrisy.

Pharoah was determined to hold onto his power over his Jewish subjects, but this was at odds with his duties to the Egyptian people who were suffering. These beliefs were incompatible, but Pharoah would not address the systemic issue and let the Jewish People go; he would only ever ask Moshe to remove the symptoms of the plague at hand.

Where was Pharaoh’s free will? Where is ours? Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous.

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house. R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that we can all too easily become prisoners to our own pride on a microcosmic level.

It’s not so difficult to imagine becoming so entrenched in a worldview that you get tunnel vision and can’t change course.

R’ Yisrael Salanter says that the first time you do something wrong, it’s a sin. When you repeat it again, it seems permitted. When you do it the third time, it can feel like a mitzvah!

R’ Shimshon Pinkus suggests that this is the definition of the Rosh Hashana blessing to be the head, and not the tail – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב. It’s a wish for an intentional year, with conscious and constant course corrections, because if today’s actions are based on yesterday’s decisions, you end up being your own tail!

As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, you must consciously choose it daily.