The Birth of History
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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
Vaera begins with words that fundamentally changed how people think about history, in that they give birth to the very idea of history. God says to Moshe, “I am Hashem. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as E-l Shaddai, but by My Name ‘Hashem’ I did not make Myself fully known to them” (Shemot 6:1-2). This statement implies that God is revealing Himself in a way He has not done before.
Rashi clarifies that this does not mean the avot were unaware of the name ‘Hashem’. Indeed, God’s first words to Avraham used this very name, and soon after, in Bereishit 12:7-8, we read “Vaera Hashem el Avram” that God appeared to Avram as ‘Hashem’ and was addressed as such. The revelation to Moshe represents something different than just a new name.
In Bereishit, God manifests as the God of creation and nature, known in various forms like Elokim or E-l Shaddai. This aspect is familiar in the ancient world, albeit worshipped through the idea of multiple gods each with a different role – the gods of the rain, the sun, the harvest, and so on. The God of Avraham differs deeply from these false gods but operates in a similar domain.
However, the aspect of God that appears to Moshe is radically different. For the first time, God involves Himself in history not through natural disasters (like the Flood), but by moulding and directing an entire nation. For the first time, God was to shape the destiny of entire peoples, liberating the Jews from slavery, leading them into the desert, and building a new society based on justice, welfare, and law.
This intervention initiated a new kind of drama and introduced a novel concept of time. Some historians regard this as the moment ‘history’ as a concept was born. Previously, human drama was about maintaining order against chaos, with religion representing the inevitability of the status quo. Time is static, events are cyclical, and nothing fundamentally changes. But now, with God’s revelation to Moshe, something utterly new is about to occur. A new nation, a new faith, a new political order, and a new type of society are about to emerge. God is entering history, setting the West on a new trajectory.
Time is now a stage for God and humanity’s joint journey toward a future where all humans can achieve their full dignity in God’s image. Religion is transformed from a conservative force to an evolutionary and even revolutionary one.
Long before the West, Chinese civilisation had invented numerous technologies but did not develop a scientific or industrial revolution, a market economy, or a free society. Historian Christopher Dawson argues that it was the religion of the West that made the difference. Europe was continually transformed by “spiritual unrest,” with its religious ideal centred not on changeless perfection, but a spiritual striving to change the world.
To change the world. That is the key phrase. It’s the idea that, together with God, we can change the world. We can make history, not just be made by it. This is the idea that was born when God told Moshe that he and his contemporaries were about to see an aspect of God no one had ever seen before.
As Rabbi Sacks says, it’s a spine-tingling moment when, each year, we read Vaera and recall the moment history was born, the moment God entered history and taught us for all time that slavery, oppression, and injustice are not written into the fabric of the cosmos or engraved into the human condition. Things can be different because we can be different, because God has shown us how.
Around the Shabbat Table
- What do you think this shift from God teaches us about the relationship between the Divine and humanity?
- How do you see God in your everyday life?
- When else in the Tanach, or Jewish history, has God’s involvement mirrored Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt?
Parsha in Passing
God speaks to Moshe again, reminding him of the brit with the avot to give the people a land. It’s now time to fulfil this promise.
He then instructs Moshe to assure Bnei Yisrael that God will deliver them from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. But weighed down by their oppressive labour, the Hebrews reject Moshe’s hopeful message.
The narrative then pauses to detail the lineage of Moshe and Aaron, further emphasising their pivotal roles. Following this, God directs Moshe to approach Paroh, with Aharon as his spokesman. God warns that He will harden Paroh’s heart, and Paroh will continue to refuse to let the Jewish people go.
This leads to a series of plagues unleashed upon Egypt: rivers turning to blood, a frog invasion, lice infestations, swarms of destructive wild animals, widespread cattle disease, and painful boils afflicting the Egyptians. Aharon is in charge of the first two plagues. Then Moshe takes charge.
Despite initially agreeing to release Bnei Yisrael during these plagues, Paroh repeatedly backs out on his promises after each plague is lifted.
Vaera reaches a dramatic peak with the seventh plague, a severe hailstorm causing extensive destruction. Paroh momentarily acknowledges his wrongdoing and promises to free Bnei Yisrael. But once the hail ceases he again reverts to his stubborn stance, refusing to let the people go.
Paroh: Not budging from his ‘enslaving the Jewish People’ stance except to play mind games with Moshe. Say, is that a frog on your head?
Moshe: Not budging from his ‘freeing the Jewish people’ stance. So with God’s help, he brings about plagues.
Aharon: The first two plagues are on me. God? Blood and frogs, please!
Paroh’s Magicians: Through fire and smoke and other tricks, they, too, can turn water into blood… kind of.
Up until this point in the Torah, our interactions with God and history have followed a more natural order. God creates the world, and we live in it. But in Vaera, we can see something new happening; God reveals a new essence of Himself – explaining that He will move and direct history, and even the fate of entire nations. God, by doing this, opens the door to a new relationship between the Jewish People and the Divine.
Rabbi Sacks points out that, with this identity shift, we become partners with God. We actually have the ability to change history, not just be a part of it.
- Reflect: How do you think understanding ourselves as partners with God, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, could change the way we act and make decisions every day, both as individuals and in our communities?
In ‘Have A Ball’ the aim of the game is to learn to be great teammates – just like we need to be great teammates with God.
How to play: Collect as many balls as you can. Everyone stands in a circle. Start with one ball being thrown across the circle to different players. After every ten catches, add another ball into the mix. (If you don’t have balls with you, you can improvise and use cushions, tangerines, or anything catchable and not likely to break or hurt the players). As more balls are added to the circle, the challenge increases. The goal is simple – keep throwing and catching, and just don’t drop the ball! This game teaches cooperation, focus, and the importance of working together.
How can we make the concept of partnering with God a practical reality? There are many ways, of course, but here are two suggestions.
First, think about the blessings you make on a daily basis – from the grand Shema during morning prayers to saying the blessing after using the bathroom.
All of these words of thanks are ways that you partner with God during your everyday routine. Acknowledging His amazing presence in your mundane activities is one way to come together with the Almighty.
Now shift your perspective. Consider the different talents and gifts that you have and how they can be used to partner with God in furthering the Jewish people.
For example, King David used his gift for music and words to create Psalms (Tehillim), while Betzalel used his artistry and building skills to construct the beautiful Mishkan.
- Can you think of some ways to strengthen your personal relationship with Hashem, to ensure you are an active player working with Him?
Once upon a time in a small village, Mabel and Abel lived with their big family in a tiny, noisy farmhouse. They were so often bothered by their house feeling crowded and chaotic that they decided to visit the centre of the town together, to ask their wise Rabbi for his advice.
“Rabbi,” Mabel said, “our little house is so small and noisy. It’s too cramped. What can we do?”
The Rabbi smiled and said, “Simple! Bring your goats into the house to live with you.”
Abel was as puzzled as Mabel, but they did as the Rabbi said. Only now, with the goats inside, the house was even more crowded!
They lasted five days. Then the couple returned to the Rabbi, looking more troubled. “Rabbi, it’s worse now! You wouldn’t believe the noise! The smell! The chaos!”
“Okay,” the Rabbi said, “now bring your chickens inside too.”
Abel was shocked and Mabel couldn’t believe it. Nevertheless, they followed the Rabbi’s advice. One week later the house was in a complete shambles. The goats and chickens were causing mayhem.
In despair, they visited the Rabbi again. “Please help, Rabbi! It’s too much to bear!”
The Rabbi calmly told Abel and Mabel, “Just let all the animals back outside.” They hurried home and did exactly that. Suddenly, the house felt wonderful! It felt so spacious – and calm – without the animals.
Mabel turned to Abel as they both realised something. Their house was much better than they had thought. What the Rabbi had taught them was that it was all about perspective.
They went into town to thank the Rabbi. And he told them something important. “Sometimes life can feel overwhelming, just like your house did. But remember, God is always with us, helping us to see things in a new light. When we feel things are too crowded or in chaos, it’s an opportunity to partner with God and find peace in our hearts. Just as your home felt better after the animals left, our lives can improve when we change our perspective and remember that God is with us, guiding us through the chaos.”
Mabel and Abel shared a smile, now understanding that even in the crowded moments, they could find peace and happiness by remembering that they had more than they might think, and that they were never abandoned. They were always in partnership with each other, and with God.
Challenge: Name three human body parts used in descriptions of Hashem, in this week’s parsha.
(See below for the answers)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
Although Hashem does not literally have human body parts, this week we read of the zeroa – arm (Shemot 6:6), the yad – hand – (Shemot 7:5) and the etzbah – finger (Shemot 8:15) – of God.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks