June 17, 2024
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Parshat Vaera

When Moshe Rabbeinu approaches Paroh with Hashem’s demand to allow Bnei Yisrael to travel into the desert where they would worship Him, the Egyptian monarch responds with a simple statement. Denying the request, the Pharaoh states: “Lo yada’ti et Hashem,” I do not know Hashem and therefore I will not allow the Israelites to go. With that simple statement, Paroh contributed an additional purpose for God’s plagues. At first, the 10 plagues would appear to be punishment for the terribly evil treatment of Bnei Yisrael—and certainly they were. But after the king’s response to Moshe, Hashem now adds an “educational” purpose to the plagues: If the Pharaoh does not “know” God and his people are ignorant of the Holy One, then both he and they would soon learn exactly who Hashem is and what His power can do!

Rav Yoni Grossman develops this thought and proposes that the plagues themselves differ in their purpose: Those plagues whose primary purpose was to punish the Egyptians are those that caused much discomfort and are referred to as “makkot,” plagues, while those whose purpose was to educate the people are ones that caused less suffering but are those in which Hashem changed the laws of nature. These are referred to as “moftim,” wonders, and, Rav Grossman points out, required no warning beforehand. Although most of these plagues share both purposes, one function is generally more pronounced than the other.

And there is yet another side to the educational purpose of the 10 plagues. We find the repetitive phrase “lam’an tedah” or “b’zot tedah”—so that you know—attached to the “mofet.” And it is precisely this recurring theme that brings us to the haftarah.

This week’s haftarah, taken from the 28th and 29th chapters of Yechezkel, centers about the retributions that God would visit upon Egypt due to her betrayal of Judea during the prophet’s time. Ignoring the warning of the prophets, the Judean leadership supported Egypt in her struggle against Babylonia and relied upon the southern empire to save Judah from the Babylonian hordes. Egypt proved to be a “staff of reeds” that collapsed whenever it was needed for support, thus leading to Israel’s exile. But one can argue that these retributions were not meant simply as punishments for the Egyptians’ treachery. These also had an educational purpose.

The recurring phrase of “v’yad’u ki ani Hashem,” “so they will know that I am Hashem,” is repeated five times in the haftarah—including as its final words. And although we would assume that they refer to teaching the Egyptians of Hashem, in actuality those words are addressed to the nation of Israel as well. The wonders that God will bring upon the Egyptian empire would come to teach the Egyptians of Hashem’s power but they were also meant as a lesson to Israel. You see, the navi prayed that the lesson of God’s power would breathe hope into the Jews of the Diaspora. These exiled Jews had heard of the siege laid upon Yerushalayim by the Babylonians and had listened to Yechezkel’s many warnings of the imminent fall of the city. It was important for them to understand that God’s power, the power of His justice that would punish Egypt for her treachery, would also punish the surrounding nations for their rejoicing over the destruction of Yerushalayim (of which we read in the perakim that precede the haftarah). And it would be this same power that would also bring them the much-awaited geulah.

As a parent’s chastisement of their child is not meant to hurt but to teach, so too Hashem’s rebuke is meant to direct, to guide and even, at times, to reassure. Both the parsha and our haftarah drive home that very point. God does not wish the death of the wicked, the navi says elsewhere (18:23; 18:32), but rather desires the sinner to repent and to return.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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