Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Parshat Vaera 2

This week’s Torah reading contains the four expressions of redemption, “I am the L-rd, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements, and I will take you to Me for a people...” (Exodus 6; 6-7). The Midrash states that these four expressions also correspond to the four decrees of Pharaoh which caused the Jews to cry out to G-d, and to be saved.

The Ba’al HaTurim finds another quartet to which these four expressions correspond. He explains that the four expressions of redemption correspond to the four nations who would exile and enslave the Jews in the future.

How do these “fours” relate to each other? Pharaoh’s first decree was to subject the Jews to slave labour. Therefore the first phrase of redemption is “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,” specifying that G-d will end the slavery and the harsh labour. One of the main purposes of the slavery was to prevent the Israelite people from retaining faith in G-d. Because they were forced to work so hard they had no time left to contemplate religion and the promises that G-d had made to the forefathers. This corresponds to the first exile, to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. At that time the greatest threat to the Jewish people was idolatry. The Babylonians were steeped in a culture of idol worship, and Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of himself to which all his subjects were forced to prostrate themselves. The Jews were later punished for bowing to this idol. The phrase “v’Hotzeti”, “And I will bring you out” reminds us of G-d’s promise to Avraham at the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d “brought Avraham outside” (Genesis 15; 5). The Midrash explains that at this moment G-d brought Avraham outside the influence of the constellations and astrology, and established a direct relationship between Himself and Avraham’s descendants. From this time forth there was no need for any idols or other intermediaries between the Jews and G-d. So too in Egypt, G-d promises to bring them out, to remove the Jews from the idolatry which they will be surrounded with in Babylon, and to redeem them from that.

The second expression of redemption, “I will deliver you from their bondage” corresponds to Pharaoh’s second decree to throw all the new-born males into the Nile. This parallels the second exile, of Persia and Medea, which culminated in Haman’s decree to wipe out all the Jewish people. During this exile the Jews were faced with physical destruction, just as Pharaoh’s aim was to physically destroy the nation by killing all the males. The word “v’Hitzalti”, “deliver” or “save” implies G-d’s saving from the threat of extermination.

The third expression of redemption, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” is G-d’s response to Pharaoh’s third decree. Pharaoh became ill with leprosy, and tried to cure himself by bathing in the blood of Jewish babies. The Hagaddah says: “Outstretched arm” this refers to the sword, as it says (I Chronicles 21; 16) “His sword in his hand, outstretched over Jerusalem.”. The simple explanation is that this refers to the slaying of the first born, which the angel of death performed with a sword. Just as Pharaoh had Jewish babies slain so that he could bathe in their blood, so he was repaid in kind when all the firstborn in Egypt were slain.

The third exile was that of the Greeks, which was unique in that it was the only exile where the Jews actually remained in the land of Israel. We do not normally think of the Greeks, the most “cultured” nation of the ancient world as being bloodthirsty murderers. However the mystical sources indicate that metaphorically they did just that. Blood is likened to the soul, as the Torah says “For the blood is the soul” (Deuteronomy 12; 23). Therefore removing a person’s spirituality is likened to shedding blood. The Greeks didn’t enslave the Jews or oppress them physically, rather they banned the study of Torah and other Jewish practices, forcing them to renounce their religion. Thus the Greeks are considered murderers in their attempt to remove the inner essence of the Jewish nation. The word “Ga’alti”, “redeem,” implies taking one nation out from the midst of another. Just as both Pharaoh on a physical level, and the Greeks on a spiritual level attempted to remove the inner essence of the Jews, so too G-d responds by removing the Jews from inside another nation.

The final decree of Pharaoh was instructing his taskmasters to stop supplying the Israelites with straw with which to make bricks. The real hardship of this decree was that it forced the Jews to spread throughout Egypt to search for straw, and thus prevented the Jews from being united. G-d responded to this decree with “I will take you to Me for a people”, G-d will externally impose unity upon the Jewish people, by being their G-d. The other three expressions of redemption all specify saving from oppression. However this final stage of redemption comes after all the external pressures have been removed, and is G-d bringing the Jews to Him, not away from something else.

The fourth and final nation to exile the Jews was Edom. They destroyed the Second Temple, and scattered the Jews throughout the world. Our Sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of the sin of causeless hatred between the Jews, a lack of unity. Therefore the exile was one which dispersed the Jews and aggravated that disunity. And the redemption from that exile must be a bringing together of all the Jews, uniting them in the purpose of being the nation of G-d.

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