The bulk of Parshat Va’era revolves around the first seven plagues visited upon the Egyptians, including the warnings given to Pharaoh and his stubborn refusal to free the slaves. We would, however, be mistaken if we see these afflictions simply as a prelude to the redemption from Egypt. For, although it is true that these plagues served as educational tools to teach the Egyptians of Hashem’s omnipotence and as motivation to release the Israelites, they were, in fact, an essential part of the redemptive process itself.
Redemption is an act of Justice. Justice demands fairness. Fairness demands reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked as well. There can be no just world in which evil is ignored and the wicked remain unpunished. God, The Judge of all creation, demands just that. These plagues were part of Hashem’s justice and, as a result, part of the redemption (which is perhaps why the wonders God visits against the Egyptians are referred to as “shfatim” [“uv’chol elohei Mitzrayim Eh’eseh shfatim”] from the root form sh,f,t—judge).
The selection for this week’s haftarah shares this very theme. Taken from the 28th and 29th chapters of Yechezkel, this reading centers around the retributions that God would visit upon Egypt due to her betrayal of Judea during the prophet’s time. Ignoring the warning of the prophets, the Judean leadership supported Egypt in her struggle against Babylonia and relied upon the southern empire to save her from the Babylonian hordes. In doing so, Israelite leadership showed a lack of faith in Hashem’s ability to redeem them and thereby weakened the belief of the masses as well. Ultimately, Egypt proved to be a “staff of reeds” that collapsed whenever it was needed for support, thus proving the Judean leaders wrong and leading to Judea’s exile.
For Egypt’s perfidy, Hashem tells Yechezkel that He would bring Egypt down from her lofty post and haughty attitude. Egypt’s treachery would be punished by debilitating military losses that would leave the land decimated and the government powerless. The prophecy also predicts the exile of the Egyptians from their land and their eventual return 40 years later, bringing to mind the 40 years that it took the freed Israelites to return to their land. Likewise, the spoils of war that would be taken by the Babylonians finds a parallel in the Exodus story, as Israel, too, left Egypt with much wealth.
Justice, punishment and reward prophesied by Yechezkel so many years after the Egyptian enslavement connect us to the theme of the parsha and provide us with lessons for today as well.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.