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Divine Power Is Absolute, but Humans Do Matter

January 19, 2012 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
Posted In 

Beginning with last week's Torah portion and continuing through this week's and those to follow, the story of the Exodus is full of miraculous wonders -- we read, in particular, this week of the first seven of the Ten Plagues -- a dramatic escape and an awe-inspiring finale at the Sea of Reeds.

But if the whole point was to free the Jewish people from bondage, wouldn't it have merely been enough to orchestrate a quiet departure from Egypt or to cause Pharaoh to accede to the first of Moses' many inquiries? Why did the Almighty harden Pharaoh's heart and necessitate what to the casual reader appears as a bunch of showmanship?

In truth, each step in the Jewish people's deliverance is a necessary precursor to what follows. And, in keeping with the Midrashic teaching that each of the four expressions of deliverance noted at the beginning of the Torah portion -- "I will free you" and "deliver you," "I will redeem you," and "I will take you to be My people" -- refers to the end of the four diasporas throughout Jewish history, the story of the Exodus also offers an instruction to how each of us should live our lives.

According to the medieval commentator Rashi, the first several of the miracles performed in Egypt served to illustrate the complete power of God. When Aaron's staff swallows those of the Egyptian sorcerers, it demonstrates that the authority of the Divine is more powerful than that of Pharaoh. When the first plague strikes the Nile, which the Egyptians worshipped as a deity, it exposes the hollowness of foreign beliefs. And when the frogs emerge from the Nile to swarm the earth, the second plague reveals how man should trust God alone.

Further plagues offer even more telling lessons: The third plague of lice leads the Egyptian sorcerers, who couldn't duplicate the miracle, to confess that no less than the "finger of God" was at work. The fourth plague of wild animals throws Egypt into chaos, illustrating that the Almighty can wreak havoc on a macro scale. Then, the fifth, sixth and seventh plagues -- the death of cattle, boils and hail -- teach that the Almighty can also be exacting in punishment.

Taken as a whole, the entire revelation -- the name "vaera" indicates a level of revelation that not even the patriarchs were privileged to grasp -- offers sequential steps in attaining knowledge of the infinite. Divine power is absolute, but the actions of someone so seemingly small as a lowly human being actually do matter.

Exodus is not merely a retelling of events that happened in the past. If it were, then Jewish law wouldn't mandate recalling the story several times each day. Ultimately, what the Exodus lays out is a template for each of our own personal deliverance from the limitations -- the word for Egypt, "mitzrayim," connotes a plurality of hindrances both physical and spiritual -- that prevent us from serving the Almighty with all of our heart, soul and mind.

The first step is to acknowledge the awesomeness of Heaven as one may tremble at the up-close and personal sight of a sovereign king. That fear prevents you from transgressing the Torah's commands. Next comes the realization that, despite all of His glory, the King Himself, as the Haggadah records, came "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm" to deliver you from all of your troubles.

The love that results from this revelation provides all of the fuel to challenge the limitations imposed by all of your personal Egypts and inherit the promised land of a good and perfected world.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of News. Email him at:

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