Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Va'era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Efrat, Israel -
"Therefore say to the children of Israel: 'I am the Lord, and I shall remove you from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be a God to you…And I shall bring you to the land which I swore to give…to you as a heritage… '"
This most stirring passage presents the four (actually five!)
expressions of redemption, which are the source for our four
(actually five) cups of Passover Seder wine (the fifth referring
to the Divine promise to "bring you to the land").
And this Biblical text tells us the coming attractions when it
speaks of God's redemption by means of His "outstretched arm and
with great judgments." It is referring to the supernatural
ten plagues against the Egyptians, the awesome wonder of the
splitting of the Reed Sea, which drowned the Egyptians and
enabled the Hebrews to escape freely onto dry land, and the
Revelation at Sinai, when God took the Hebrews to Himself as His
As we shall see, the expressions of Divine Redemption set the
stage of contrast between our Biblical history and Post-Biblical
history. In the earlier period, God played the star role (as it
were) in effectuating our national freedom and in establishing
our national constitution to form us as a "holy nation and
kingdom of Kohen-teachers" to all humanity (Ex. 19:6),
whereas during our subsequent second commonwealth (Talmudic
times) and Post-Talmudic history leading up to Redemption, it is
Israel who must take the responsibility and assume proactive
leadership as God's senior partners in the international arena.
The Talmudic Tractate Shabbat (88a) teaches as follows:
"And they stood at the bottom of (tahtit) the mountain" (Ex
19:17). Rabbi Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said, 'This verse teaches
that the Holy One, Blessed be He, hung the mountain over them
like a barrel, and said to them, "If you accept the Torah it
will be good; if not, there shall be your grave!" Rabbi
Aha bar Jacob said, "This constitutes serious grounds for
protesting the validity of our acceptance of the Torah!"
(If our obligation to uphold the Torah today harks back to our
acceptance of Torah four thousand years ago at Sinai which was
based on duress, our commitment then and now is not binding!).
How can Rabbi Abdimi logically—and textually—maintain that God
"forced us" into accepting Torah? The Biblical chapter
relating the Sinaitic Covenant clearly states: "The entire
nation responded in one voice and said, 'all the words which the
Lord has spoken we shall do'" (Ex 19:8), and then, for
emphasis, once again, "Everything which the Lord has spoken, we
shall do and we shall internalize." (Ex. 24: 7).
The Sages dare not "remove a Biblical verse from its literal and
What Rabbi Abdimi may be referring to is the supernatural,
Divinely orchestrated context within which the Revelation was
placed: the outstretched arm of God that had wrought the
judgments of the plagues and the Reed Sea upon the Egyptians,
along with "the thunder, the flames, the sound of the shofar and
the smoking furnace" (Ex 19:16) which accompanied God's
words. Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot to Shabbat 88a s.v. moda'a)
goes so far as to say that no covenants agreed upon by Israel
after hearing Divine Speech can be seen as voluntary
commitments; "God's awesome communication in itself creates a
situation of duress," it removes the individual's uninhibited
power of free choice.
The question then remains; are we or are we not obligated to
keep the commandments of Torah? In the previously cited
Talmudic passage, Rava explains why we remain obligated:
"Despite the (coercion at Sinai), Israel freely accepted the
Torah in the days of Ahashverosh, as it says, 'the Jews
confirmed and received' (Esther 9:27) that is, they
confirmed then what they had previously received (at Sinai)"
Allow me to explain. During the Biblical period, Israel
was in diapers, slowly advancing to bar-mitzvah. It was
essential that our Parent-in-Heaven assume center stage by
establishing our status as a free nation and communicating His
Torah as our Divine Constitution and Mission Statement.
As we developed, from the Second Commonwealth and onwards, we
were given the charge to complete an incomplete world and also
to complete an incomplete Torah which had to remain relevant
through changing times and circumstances (the Oral Law,
interpretations by the Sages of every age).
From then on, we became responsible to lead ourselves and the
world in the path toward redemption.
The story of Esther took place and was written just as the
period of the second commonwealth was about to begin.
God's name does not appear in the Scroll of Esther; He has a
significant role, but He remains behind the curtain, and the
crucial decisions must be made by the human participants:
Esther, Mordecai and Haman. The victory of Torah
Jewry over Persian assimilation, which takes place in the Scroll
of Esther demonstrates the new age which is dawning. The
Scroll of Esther confirmed the Jewish acceptance of Torah
commitment as an act of free choice even without the
overwhelming Divine Presence taking center stage.
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