In this week’s portion, Va’era, God instructs Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh and begin Israel’s redemption from Egypt. The initial meetings do not go well, and the plagues of Egypt begin. The text is packed with themes, messages, history and philosophy for which we have thousands of years of Jewish thought recorded for us to study.
Interestingly, there is also a clear contrast of leadership and cultural models that are shown to us throughout these texts. When Moses first appears to Pharaoh and the signs begin, Pharaoh summons his sorcerers and they are able to duplicate what Moses and Aaron have done. These sorcerers replicate even the beginning of the plagues. And so the great challenge between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel starts to unfold.
The subtle moment that conveys everything is not whether or not these signs can be duplicated, but rather how is each side performing these tasks. Moses and Aaron always speak out loud to Pharaoh and always in public. Pharaoh’s sorcerers always speak in their incantations, secret spells and hidden language.
Without these sorcerers and their secrets, there is no access to their religious world. It is the exclusive domain of the special few.
Unlike Egypt, Moses introduces a model of transparency, contact, interaction and understanding. Everything Moses will do will be announced in advance and understood. There is no secret language, privilege of the few or hidden conversations, whispers or incantations. God is modelling covenant, which is the opposite of Egypt and everything it stands for.
Whether or not Egyptian sorcerers can cast spells and work wonders is not important to our text. This is the ancient world, and wondrous events are commonplace. The issue is not what they do, but how they do it. It’s a subtle moment in our text that conveys the first lesson of the nation soon to be.
Rachael Turkienicz is executive director of Rachael’s Centre in Toronto, rachaelscentre.org.