Friday, January 15, 2021/2 Shevat, 5781
Parashat Va-eira Exodus 6:2–9:35
Before this year, I never considered the compounding nature of the plagues. In this week’s Torah portion alone, seven plagues take place in quick succession: water turns to blood, frogs, lice, and flies fill the land, cattle disease spreads, boils erupt on people’s skin, and hail falls from the sky.
We know from experience how difficult it is to cope with one challenge after another. We have struggled for months with a pandemic that has upended so much of our lives. Physical isolation, illness, and mourning weigh heavily upon us. Financial insecurity is a reality for far too many. On top of this, we have dealt with wildfires, political strife, and an insurrection. One challenge is compounded by the next.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
When faced with hardship, Pharaoh becomes cold and angry. Every time that Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free, Pharaoh fails to do so. He stubbornly oppresses them, despite knowing that his people will face grave consequences for his actions. There are three different words the Torah uses in reference to Pharoah’s heart. The first is Chazak lev; Pharoah hardens and fortifies his heart. The second is Kaved lev; Pharoah weighs down his heart with anger and stubbornness. Finally, there is Kasheh lev; Pharaoh becomes difficult and insensitive. In response to the challenges of the time, Pharaoh chooses to dig in his heels, recommitting himself to falsehoods and hatred. He continues to treat the Israelites with great contempt, even when doing so puts everyone in harm’s way. It is a cowardly response rooted in ego and fear. Rather than do what is right, Pharaoh hardens his heart to the needs of others.
Moses offers an alternative. As a young man, he intentionally goes out of his way to hear the Israelite people’s cries. He gives up his life of protection and luxury within the Pharaoh’s palace by standing up to a taskmaster who was brutally beating a slave. Years later, he leaves the pleasant life he had created for himself in Midian to heed God’s call. He cannot stand by while his fellow human beings are struggling. He puts everything on the line to confront Pharaoh, fight for his people, and restore the Israelites’ faith and hope. When faced with difficulty, Moses responds by softening his heart with empathy and compassion. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is no match for Moses’ strength of character and commitment to the community.
Much like Moses, we cannot undo all of our world’s hardship, but we can play a role in diminishing suffering and uplifting our fellow. We cannot heal all those who have COVID-19, nor can we bring back those whose lives were tragically cut short. We can, however, respond to the needs of our fellow human beings.
After the untimely death of a young and vibrant member of our community, we asked for donations to help pay for the family’s insurmountable funeral costs. I was blown away by the Temple Beth El community’s generosity, which meant more to the family than words can express. In response to recent illness and death, our community has been present for one another, offering acts of concern and love. Each act of generosity is appreciated and so very needed.
I pray that soon COVID cases will begin to diminish, and our hardships will lessen. Until then, let us continue to be like Moses, opening our hearts to one another with empathy, compassion, and love.
Rabbi Cassi Kail