Vaera: Faith and Justice

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Vaera ; Shmot/ Exodus 6:2 – 9:35.

Vaera tells of the first plagues in Egypt, but Pharaoh does not relent.

Greetings from my childhood state of Maryland, where I’ve just concluded  a rabbinic retreat, with learning and reflection on the practice of prayer and the meaning of liturgy- which is a great thing since that’s our theme for this year’s Torah  studies. In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, there’s plenty of prayer on the part of both Moshe and Pharaoh, but the connection to the siddur [prayerbook], is a little more obscure- but it’s  there all right, in both the morning and evening liturgies.

In both the morning [shacharit] and evening [ma’ariv] services, after the recitation of Shma [declaration of Divine unity], there is a paragraph of praise, in which God is extolled for defeating our enemies and bringing Israel to salvation. This paragraph precedes a direct quote from the song at the Sea of Reeds- we’ll get to that in future weeks. For this week, it’s enough to notice some uncomfortable language in our praises:

” . . . . vindicating us with miracles before Pharaoh, with signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt. God smote, in wrath, Egypt’s firstborn, brought Israel to lasting freedom and led them through divided waters as their pursuers sank in the sea. . . . ” (from Siddur Sim Shalom.)

The wording above is from the ma’ariv service but the phrasing in the morning is comparable in theme. Viewed through the lens of a simple theology of God working in history, on our side and against the enemies of Israel, the praises above are clear enough. From another perspective, the words are troubling, for they seem to have a triumphalist tone, celebrating the downfall of an enemy rather than regarding all suffering as tragic. That  is the sensibility of our Passover tradition of taking drops of wine out of the cup in acknowledgment of the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues; one might imagine that the siddur would similarly temper its praise when terrible retributions are mentioned.

Personally, I can’t connect the work of prayer- which is necessarily both a humbling and expansion of the self towards greater compassion- with praises to God for wreaking vengeance on our enemies. So maybe the mention of the “signs and wonders” after the Shma can be understood as a particular image of a general principle: that the God of Israel is found on the side of those who struggle against oppression, with those who suffer and not with their tormentors. From God-consciousness, or faith, arises a sense of moral accountability beyond that which is immediately apparent, and it is that larger moral vision which is the object of our praise.

In other words- I’m not praising God for plagues in Egypt, as such. Leaving aside questions of historical veracity, the mention of the plagues, is, for me, a reminder that faith in God means faith that justice will eventually triumph, even if- to paraphrase Dr. King- the arc of  history takes a long time to bend in that direction. Not only that, but remembering this in my prayer makes it about my own accountability rather than another’s, and in this way, the very act of praying pushes me towards participation in acts of justice rather than acquiescence to Pharaoh. Rather than triumphalism, recalling the Exodus celebrates our experience of God as Liberator, and reminds us each day to make the Exodus real again for all who cry out.

Shabbat Shalom,


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