PARASHAT VAERA (Exodus 6 : 1 – 9 : 35)

Theme:  The Politics of Hope

This week’s parashah is Vaera.  It is again a lengthy parashah and much of it is devoted to the plagues that afflicted Egypt when Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrew slaves from bondage.

The Exodus narrative has been studied from many different perspectives.  Rabbinic commentators have provided close readings of the text, finding patterns and structures that are not immediately apparent to the ordinary reader.  Scientists have proposed ecological scenarios that may account naturally for the plagues and Egyptologists have unearthed intriguing parallels in Ancient Egyptian texts, with some suggesting that the plagues were targeting nature deities that figured prominently in Egyptian mythology.  There is also considerable discussion of the moral implications of Pharaoh being deprived of freedom of choice when God ‘hardens’ his heart, following the earlier group of plagues.

The most moving retelling of the Exodus narrative that I have heard was delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a Jewish community centre, a little before the final collapse of apartheid.  For the Jews, the Exodus story is the most significant narrative in the Hebrew Bible.  Not only is it relived every Passover, but there are very few religious days when we do not at some stage ‘remember the going out of Egypt’.

Why the Exodus should be so significant is bound up with a somewhat opaque passage at the beginning of the parashah: “And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God almighty, but by my name ‘the Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.  I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land on which they lived as strangers.  I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites and I have remembered my covenant.  Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement.  I will take you as my people and I will be your God.  You shall know that I am the Lord your God who has freed you from the burden of the Egyptians’” (6:2-7).

The second name of God referred to at the beginning of the passage cited is the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name that Jews do not vocalise or enunciate, but refer to indirectly as ‘the Lord’.  The name transcends the natural order and is associated with the mystery of Divine compassion.  It means in practice that the natural order of power is no longer definitive, and key words are deliverance and redemption.  It is the birth of what Rabbi Sacks memorably referred to as the politics of hope.

This development is highly pertinent in our own time.  Scholars of international relations famously talk of politicians as being either ‘realists’ or ‘idealists’ – the language, as we will see, is clearly ‘loaded’, and should be used with considerable caution.  For realists, military conflict is an inevitable part of life and those who have power will inevitably exploit it – as Thucydides famously put it in the 5th century BCE, the strong do as they can, and the weak suffer as they must.  The world of politics is harsh and cruel, and ‘peaceniks’ are very dangerous because they misunderstand ‘reality’ and put their countries into jeopardy.

‘Realism’ can be attractive for very powerful countries.  ‘Make America great again’ was very much a part of ‘realist’ perception of politics, as was the disdain for international institutions that went with it.

‘Realism’ is often persuasive for people or communities who have had very dark historical experiences.  The triumph of the right in Israeli politics draws heavily on the tragic Jewish experience of the twentieth century.  It takes the Holocaust and the wars that have punctuated Israel’s history as definitive of how fearful the world is and how we must respond if we are to survive as a people in an environment that is hostile and threatening.

‘Realism’ offers a world without hope, and its bleak understanding of life can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of never-ending and intractable conflict.  In the twentieth century some realists mobilised Darwinian understanding of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to argue that their view of human affairs is an inevitable part of the natural order – biology proves that they are right.

The Exodus narrative tells us that there is another way, and that way, down the ages, is the way of God.  In January 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke at a conference on Religion and Race in Chicago.  There he first met Dr Martin Luther King and the two famously marched side by side at a civil rights demonstration at Selma, Alabama, in 1965.  Rabbi Heschel spoke as follows:  “At the first conference on Religion and Race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.  Moses’ words were:  ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.”  While Pharaoh retorted:  “Who is the Lord that I should heed his voice and let Israel go  …

“The outcome of the summit meeting has not come to an end.  Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.  The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed.  In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel the Red Sea than for a black American to cross certain university campuses … My heart is sick when I think of the anguish and the sighs, of the quiet tears shed in the nights, in the overcrowded dwellings in the slums of our great cities, of the pangs of despair, of the cup of humiliation that is running over.”

This is why we are instructed to remember the Exodus from Egypt for all the days of our life, and especially in the darkness of the night, when it is a sign of hope for us all.

Jonathan Gorsky