Va-eira: A Request for Wilderness

December 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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What does Moses request from the pharaoh of Egypt?

In Moses’ first encounter with God, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that the long-term plan is to take the children of Israel out of Egypt and relocate them in Canaan. But then God says:

You and the elders of Israel shall come to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, manifested to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for God, our god. (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)

midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert), uninhabited land

What difference would it make if the Israelites were granted a leave of absence for a week (three days into the wilderness, perhaps a day for the ceremonies, and three days back), if they had to go back to corvée labor building brick storehouses as soon as they returned? Why not have Moses ask the pharaoh for their emancipation from forced labor in the first place?

I always used to wonder if the ulterior motive was to get all the Israelites far enough away so that they could simply continue toward Mount Sinai, instead of returning. After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them three days to get to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. Red Sea), where God creates the miracle that liberates them from Egypt for good.

However, God knows that the pharaoh would not grant the request for a leave of absence. So the value of this initial request on behalf of the Israelites must lie in the concepts it expresses: going into the wilderness, and serving their own god.

The pharaoh reacts to Moses’ request by giving the Israelites additional work instead of an unpaid vacation. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses and his brother Aaron come before the pharaoh a second time, and demonstrate the miracle of the staff that turns into a snake. Pharaoh is unmoved, so God begins the series of “ten plagues”, ten miraculous devastating events.

The pharaoh ignores the first plague, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood. The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.

…and he said: Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to God. (Exodus 8:4)

After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh makes his heart heavy and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain. Only after the fourth plague (arov (עָרֹב) = literally “mixers”, possibly a swarm of mixed insects or wild beasts) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer.

And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: Go! Slaughter offerings to your god in the land. (Exodus 8:21)

Moses refuses. He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt. His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.

So Pharaoh said: I, I will send you, and you shall slaughter offerings for God, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away. Plead for me! (Exodus 8:24)

Of course, after Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites their leave of absence.

During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.

Why can the Israelites only serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt? For one thing, the pharaoh is an absolute ruler. In all the inhabited parts of his country, everyone is required to serve him as if he were a god. But, as we learn later in the book of Exodus, the god of the Israelites is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service. One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

Furthermore, the wilderness seems to be where it is easiest to connect with God. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva. Jacob first encounters God in a rocky spot on his journey through the wilderness north of Beersheva, and wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area by the Yabok River. Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, and then he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says: And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)

In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection. I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we serve God together. I miss these prayer services when I go too long without them.

Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine inside me, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people (even praying people or inspiring speakers) to distract me, and no other artifacts of civilization to remind me of what else I might be doing. If I see only plants, dirt, and sky, if I hear only the wind and my own breathing, then I can do a different kind of prayer, and sink down into a deep place.

In that place, I am separated from my usual enslavements. I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve. The words “God” and “service” are slippery concepts, but you might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom. And a little freedom returns with me when I leave the wilderness and return to the world of people.

May we all find that wilderness when we need it.

(I will be traveling next week, with no opportunity to write a post on the next Torah portion, Bo. Click on these links if you want to read my previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my post two weeks from now, on Beshallach (“And he sent”), when the Israelites leave Egypt and immediately encounter some daunting new problems.)

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  1. I love this, melissa. I’m leading services tomorrow morning and thinking a lot about this need for midbar and how infrequently I search it out and the loss of connection that results from that. Good shabbos!


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