Vaeyra - Realizing God in Our LIves

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

Moses is now trying to get Pharaoh to let the people go, and it's not going well. His first request was rebuffed and the workload increased. In anguish, Moses turns to God to ask why the people are even worse off than before. As this week's portion begins,
God reaffirms the purpose of Moses' mission and restates the covenant between God and the people. God forewarns Moses of
the coming plagues, and explains that Pharaoh's heart will be hardened in order for God to perform more and more wonders, and leave no doubt as to who is God. The narrative continues with the first seven plagues.

One aspect of this portion that I find comforting is the acknowledgement that it can be very difficult to come to believe that God is real, or to see how God is in your life, or how God is in relation to entire peoples. The Torah reflects the tremendous difficulty people have in accepting and maintaining faith in God; trusting that God is reliable.

The Israelite slaves have difficulty believing. Moses tries to reassure them of God's plan, but, "they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage." (Exodus 6:9) Their life is so hard that they have become too bitter to even hope. Nothing in their experience allows them to imagine such a thing as redemption could happen. For hundreds of years, God does not seem to have taken note of them. All that happens when Moses tries to help is that the work gets harder. What would it take to get them to believe? People who have experienced bitter cruelty and unrelenting injustice sometimes conclude that God doesn't exist or God doesn't care.
They can come to doubt their worth or their right to freedom and peace. Sometimes it is simply too painful to hold the idea that God may have a benevolent intention even in our suffering.

Ironically, the first people to realize that the power behind the plagues is truly divine are the Egyptian magicians. When they can no longer copy the plagues with their tricks, they realize the plagues' source is a power greater than any other: ".and the magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God!' But Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he would not heed them." (Exodus 8:15)

Eventually, everyone is made to know that there is only one God and the people are saved from slavery to become free Israelites in their own land. Jews tell this story repeatedly as the heart of our self understanding: we are the people who were slaves until God reached out to save us, gave us the Torah, and made us free. From this story springs our devotion to the dream of eventual human salvation.

But the Israelites lose faith early and often, despite all they have personally witnessed. Some look at this portion and feel it would be easier to hold to belief today if such miraculous demonstrations were more common. Few of us will experience surviving when everyone around us is struck by plagues, or walking through a parted sea. But even those who did are portrayed as hard to convince, quick to imagine they are in desperate straits, rebellious, and irreverent.

In asking ourselves what would have convinced them once and for all, it is useful to ask ourselves what would completely convince us that God is real and the Torah leads to a life of blessing? Obviously not everyone needs convincing. It is commonly said that for a non-believer, no proof is sufficient, and for a believer, no proof is necessary. But for those whose faith waivers, there seem to be many reasonable objections to trusting God. In Vaera, God earns the people's trust the same way a person does; by coming
through on promises over and over again.

This is still happening all the time, for those who are sensitive enough to experience it. There may not be obvious supernatural wonders like the plague of fiery hail, but there are more subtle occurrences that are very meaningful. When people in dire situations are saved, for example from disease or addiction, they often come to a profound realization of the power of God in their lives. Often they find it is more loving and all-encompassing than they had ever imagined when they thought they were on their own. Sometimes they can even see how their suffering was necessary to bring them to important realizations that changed their lives, and the lives
of many others, for the better.

Broadly speaking, Judaism is based on seeking to live according to the will of God, because God saved us and established the covenant. We have a very particular way of defining what that means, and different communities differ on some of the specifics, all in the attempt to understand what God requires, or what holiness is, but we believe this will lead to many blessings. A life of blessing is not necessarily an easy life, but it is a life of deep satisfaction and fearlessness. For the person of faith, the opportunity to serve the Beloved is itself a blessing. It has been said that if you are not serving God, you are in some sense serving Pharaoh. Still, in Parshat Vaera we are reminded that maintaining such faithful service is a struggle. The rewards may not arrive on schedule. The dream
itself can die if life is too oppressive. But we retell this story in part to remind ourselves that salvation is really possible, and that it only comes from one real Source.