Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’eira, in which we begin to read about the Ten Plagues. The plagues grow increasingly worse: blood in the water for a week, a frog infestation, lice, swarms of arov (alternately translated as wild beasts or flies), cattle disease, boils, and fiery hail. Next week we will read of the horrors of a locust swarm that eats every last morsel in the fields of Egypt, the utter darkness that descends, and of course the tragedy of the first born sons of Egypt.
Now, I have to admit that blood in the water is pretty disturbing to me, but I saw an interesting d’var Torah that an acquaintance shared on Facebook earlier this week that she found the first three plagues paled in comparison with the later ones. I actually think frogs are cute, so I had to agree with her on that one. Sure, it would be a nuisance to have them in your bed and on your head, in your chairs and in your hair, frogs leaping about everywhere! But, it hardly stands up as a terrifying plague of the Almighty in the same way as fiery hail or the Angel of Death. So what was the purpose of the earlier, sort of mundane plagues?
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, an early Polish leader of the Chasidic movement, played with the Hebrew in this parasha to give us some insight. At the beginning of the parasha, before the plagues begin, God gives Moses a series of promises: “I am the Lord your God, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be Your God … I will bring you into the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage.” Rabbi Bunim changes the Hebrew for “burdens” - sivlot - to the word for “patience” - savlanut. The people of Israel have been slaves for so long that they have become complacent with their oppression, and God needs to work to bring them out of their patience as much as out of the oppression coming from the Egyptians themselves. The frogs, and the other early plagues that may seem benign in comparison with what’s coming, are not meant to immediately encourage the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. The people of Israel themselves are not ready to go yet. They must see the wonders of God, be shaken out of their patience for Pharaoh’s nonsense, be ready to move when the time comes. The frogs are warning signs. They are hints for what God really has planned. They smuggled messages to the crushed people of Israel to communicate what God may be capable of once they are ready to believe in real miracles.
In our own lives, there will be signs of what’s to come if we pay attention. Warning signs for the horrors that await us if we harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and signs of hope and faith that liberation are around the corner if we’re ready to work for it like the Israelites. We must be vigilant for these signs and we must be willing to act on them. Seize a career opportunity if it arises. Stand up for rights that feel threatened. Profess your love to someone. If you have the inkling that change is coming, if you feel in your gut it’s time to act, do it. See the signs, have faith, and be ready to make moves. May we all have the strength of spirit to shake ourselves out of complacency, may we find smooth transitions, may we respond to the warning signs in our lives, and most of all, may we find freedom waiting on the other end of that shift. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.