In the wake of Moses’ protest to G‑d over the sufferings of Israel (“My G‑d, why have You done evil to this people?!”), G‑d assures the newly appointed leader that the redemption is near. “I revealed Myself (va’eira) to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob,” and I shall fulfill My covenant with them. Invoking “four expressions of redemption,” G‑d promises:
I will bring you out from under the hardship of Egypt, and I will save you from their bondage; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to Myself as a nation, and I will be to you a G‑d.
Moses relays G‑d’s words to the children of Israel, “but they did not listen to Moses because of their anguish of spirit and cruel bondage."
Which prompts Moses to say to G‑d: “Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen me?”
The Torah breaks in its narrative of Moses’ mission to Pharaoh to detail the family tree of the first leader of Israel:
Levi, the third son of Jacob, lived 137 years and had three sons: Gershon, Kehat and Merari. Kehat, who lived 133 years, had four sons, the eldest of whom was Amram. Amram married his aunt, Yocheved (the daughter of Levi); their marriage produced Miriam, Aaron and Moses.
Aaron married Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav and sister of Nachshon, from the tribe of Judah. They had four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar. Elazar married “one of the daughters of Putiel” and fathered Pinchas.
(Moses, as we learned in last week’s reading, married Tzipporah the daughter of Jethro, and fathered two sons, the first of whom he named Gershom. The second is identified in Exodus 18:4 as Eliezer.)
We also learn that Korach (who later led a rebellion against Moses’ leadership see Numbers 16) was Moses’ first cousin, the son of his father’s younger brother, Yitzhar.
Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.
Sticks and Snakes
Time and again Moses is sent to Pharaoh to demand in G‑d’s name: “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me!” If Pharaoh demands a sign, saying, “Show a miracle for yourselves,” Aaron is instructed to “take your rod and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it shall turn into a snake.”
Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, as G‑d had commanded: Aaron threw down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it turned into a snake.
Pharaoh is unimpressed. He summons “the wise men, the sorcerers and the magicians of Egypt,”
and they also did the same with their secret arts: each of them threw down his rod, and they turned into snakes.
Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.
Still, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not listen to them.”
The Plagues Begin
Now G‑d instructs Moses to confront Pharaoh on the bank of the Nile, where the king is to be found in the morning, and say to him:
The G‑d of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness”; and behold, until now you have not listened.
By this you shall know that I am G‑d: behold, I will strike with the rod that is in my hand upon the water in the River, and it will turn into blood.
Aaron strikes the River with the staff, and all the water in Egypt—in “their streams, their canals, their ponds, and all their pools of water in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone”—turns to blood for seven days. Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the feat, and Pharaoh persists in his refusal to let the children of Israel go.
So G‑d sends another plague on Egypt. “If you refuse to let them go,” is the warning conveyed by Moses,
This time, when the plague materializes, Pharaoh changes his tune. “Entreat G‑d, that He may take away the frogs from me and from my people,” he says to Moses and Aaron, “and I will let the people go.”
Tell me the exact moment you want the frogs to go, challenges Moses, and it will happen then. “Tomorrow,” says Pharaoh.
“Let it be according to your word,” says Moses, “so that you may know that there is none like the L‑rd our G‑d.” And so it came to pass.
But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as G‑d had said.
Lice, Hordes and Pestilence
The plagues continue. For the third plague,
Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod and struck the dust of the earth; and it became lice on man and on beast throughout all the land of Egypt.
For the first time, Pharaoh’s magicians are unable to duplicate the feat; “This is the finger of G‑d,” they concede. Still, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as G‑d had said.”
In the next plague, G‑d sends hordes of wild beasts all over Egypt—only the land of Goshen is spared, as a sign that “I will put a division between My people and your people.” Pharaoh pleads with Moses to have the beasts removed. This time he tries bargaining with the Hebrew leader: if you need to offer sacrifices to your G‑d, do it here, in Egypt—why must you go out into the wilderness?
But the animals we shall sacrifice are worshipped by the Egyptians, says Moses. “If we should sacrifice the abomination of Egypt before their eyes, will they not stone us?” No, we must go off a distance of “three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice to the L‑rd our G‑d in the manner that He instructs us.”
Okay, says Pharaoh, I’ll let you go. “Just don’t go too far. Please, pray for me.”
“I will pray to G‑d to remove the hordes,” says Moses. “But let not Pharaoh deal deceitfully any more in not letting the people go.” But that exactly is what Pharaoh does.
In the fifth plague, the Egyptians’ cattle—“the horses, donkeys, camels, oxen and sheep”—all die. Pharaoh sends to see if the cattle belonging to the Israelites have met a similar fate, and learns that not a single one of their animals was afflicted. Still he hardens his heart.
Boils and Hail
The sixth plague was the plague of boils. G‑d instructs Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it heavenwards in the sight of Pharaoh.” They do so, and the soot “became a pox breaking out in blisters on man and beast.”
G‑d hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as G‑d had spoken to Moses.
When Moses warned that the seventh plague would be a devastating hail, those among the Egyptians who “feared the word of G‑d” brought their servants and cattle indoors; those who did not, left them out in the field.
Moses stretched out his rod towards heaven, and G‑d . . . rained hail upon the land of Egypt.
There was hail, and fire flaring up within the hail, very grievous, such as there had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.
The hail struck, throughout all the land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast; the hail also struck every plant of the field, and broke every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.
A repentant Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron, and proclaims:
“I have sinned this time; G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat G‑d that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail, and I will let you go.”
For the seventh time, the scenario repeated itself:
When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders had ceased, he sinned yet again. . . . The heart of Pharaoh was hard, and he would not let the children of Israel go, as G‑d had spoken through Moses.