How long? A Commentary on Parashat Vaera
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, South Australia
"I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant." (Exodus 6:5, Jewish Publication Society translation).
I find often that the questions that most tug at me in the Torah are rarely the ones that the rabbis address. While there are numerous commentaries and midrashimexamining this verse, I have not found one which looks at the question that I really want answered: Why does it take God so long to hear the moaning of the Israelites?! Tradition tells us that the Israelites were enslaved for 400 years. Even if we just assume that the Jewish people were placed in bondage shortly before the birth of Moses, the Israelites have already been crying out to God for more than eighty years. Midrash tells us that the Israelites remained faithful during the whole period of their enslavement: they continued to speak Hebrew and they continued to give their children Jewish names. And yet many generations of Israelites suffered before God finally came to their aid. Why?
This year, I ask this question without expectation of an answer. To me, that is what it means to be Jewish: there are times when I live with uncertainty. I have inherited extraordinary stories of miracles and wonders in the Torah and beyond: just in this week's parshah, the waters of the mighty Nile are turned to blood, the Egyptians afflicted with frogs and lice, and boils--and that's mild compared to what we will see next week. Looking ahead to Shabbat Shirah in two weeks we know that God will part the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to cross through the middle of a vast body of water on dry land. As I read these miraculous events once again, the voice of a young student echoes in my head: "How come God could save the Jews from the Egyptians but couldn't save them from the Nazis?"
My younger son turned 20 this week in a world that is moving through the twin plagues of Covid-19 and climate change. Both are exacerbating poverty and suffering in the world. There are times when it is difficult to sustain hope, and it can be still more challenging to hold on to faith. But that is also what it means to be Jewish: even in the midst of a harsh reality, we find moments give thanks and seek opportunities to offer a hundred blessings a day. We strive to see the shining, beautiful world that is concealed behind the difficulties that confront us. And we commit to doing what we can to bring that vision to light.
In 1984, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published an edition of the five scrolls, with haunting illustrations by Leonard Baskin. For the solemn commemoration of Tisha B'Av, when the book of Lamentations is read, the rabbis took the rare step of writing a new bracha: We praise You, O God, Sovereign of existence, who has made us captives of hope. I am proud to add my voice to their ranks and recast myself as a captive of hope. I hope you will join me!