Shabbat Vaeyra: Negotiations

December 30, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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Moses and Aaron engaged in protracted negotiations with Pharaoh. Was it really necessary?

Moses needed to break down Pharaoh’s resistance. After all, Pharaoh was a god on Earth of the most powerful nation of its time. Faced with slaves with no political or religious power in his eyes, why on earth should he, monarch of the most advanced society, pay any attention to powerless slaves? As Pharaoh says, “ Who is your God that I should listen to when He tells me to let Israel go?” The amazing thing is that he was prepared to talk.

His hard heart was simply the arrogance of power, impervious to alternative narratives. It is not unlike in our day where the secular world often simply does not understand religious perspectives. And we won’t talk about politics. He asked for some kind of proof. Moses and the magicians of Egypt traded magic in a trial of power until eventually, the magicians conceded that there were some things they couldn’t do “ It must be the finger of God.” Pharaoh began to waver.

Moses negotiated in stages. At first, he asked only that the Israelites be allowed to serve their God. Pharoah was amenable but asked why they needed to leave Egypt to do so. And Moses replied that since their way of sacrifice was different, and it would seem sacrilegious to them. Then Moses said he wanted three days to sacrifice outside their land. Pharaoh objected. Then when Pharaoh softened Moses asked to take all the livestock, all the women and children too.  Why didn’t he simply ask from the start to leave altogether? The duel continued as the magicians grew more and more powerless.

After the hail, Pharaoh conceded  “I have sinned, God is right, and we are wrong.” But when the plague has passed his stubbornness returns (Why should I get a vaccination?).  Some of the Egyptians began to waver and take precautions to avoid the effects of the plagues. Eventually, they turned to Pharaoh and told him to let the Israelites go. We see the slow process of the breakdown of the confidence the Egyptian people had in the leadership. But why did it all have to happen so slowly and painfully?  Could it not have been achieved in one overpowering strike?

Just as Pharaoh needed to be worn down, to realize his limitations, on the other hand, the Israelites, so overwhelmed and demoralized by slavery and oppression, needed to acquire a degree of trust and confidence to turn the tables on their masters. They had to see the limitations and weaknesses of the Egyptians. Both processes needed time.

Our history has unfolded slowly, often painfully, in cycles and stages.  Rarely do things happen exactly when and how we humans want or expect? This is the message of the covenant with  Abraham. The historical thread that God promised unfolds slowly but inevitably. There was no promise that things would not go against us. When looking back at how Jew-hatred has risen and fallen and then risen again, we can see how history ebbs and flows. We, humans, have a short life span, little patience, and often lack the ability or determination to persevere and wait. And yet through it all, we have miraculously survived.

Exodus 6:2-9:35


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