Va’era: Innocent bystanders — or passive supporters of wrongdoing?

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.


Moses has been disappointed by the reception he has received at the hands of both the Pharaoh and the Israelites. The Pharaoh’s response to God’s demand to “let My people go” was to place an even heavier burden upon the Israelites. As a result, the Israelites wished that Moses had never pleaded their case at all.

As this second Torah portion of the book of Shemot (Exodus) opens, Moses is in a crisis.  No doubt he is feeling as if he has failed in his mission and has joined the Israelites in wishing he had never left the security of Midian.

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So it is that God speaks to him: Va’era, I appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai; however, to you I am revealing My personal Name, Yud He Vav He.  This four-lettered Name,called the Tetragramaton, seems to be rooted in the verb “to be” and seems to be the causative form, meaning “the One Who causes to be” or the Source of Existence.

It also represents the superimposition of the Hebrew verbs for “he was,” “he is” and “he will be.”  Moses learns, therefore, that God is the eternal Source of all existence – the One Who called the universe into being.

Moses obtains a second audience with the Pharaoh as a result of this new revelation. At Moses’ word, Aaron throws down his staff, and it turns into a snake. However, the court magicians are able to do this, too, and it appears to be a draw until Aaron’s staff consumes all of the others.  This does not convince the Pharaoh of God’s power, however.

Therefore, Moses and Aaron will be instructed as to the first seven of the 10 Plagues, which God will bring upon the Egyptians in order to convince Pharaoh that God is all-powerful. In the first of these, the water of the Nile and all of the water in Egypt is turned to blood. This, too, the magicians can do. Then frogs are brought forth in such great numbers as to be in everything and overrun the entire country.

After the frogs come five other plagues which vexed both animals and humans.  Despite the fact that the magicians could no longer duplicate the plagues, Pharaoh remained hard-hearted. Though at times Pharaoh seemed to relent and to consider allowing the Israelites to go, after each group of plagues ended, his heart hardened, as God had predicted.

Why were the Egyptians punished for their leader’s hard heart? They seem to be the innocent bystanders in this entire tale. Perhaps it is that they were not so innocent.

During the time that Jews and other people deemed to be less human than the Aryans were being destroyed in the death camps, very few Germans protested or even seemed to notice, let alone care about, what was going on.  When the Allied troops confronted them regarding the camps, they claimed that they did not even know they were there. They had “no idea” what was going on, they said.  Yet, how could people living in close proximity to the camps not perceive through at least one of their five senses that people were being exterminated and their bodies were being burned?

At the end of the war, there was no one held to be an innocent bystander, for all must have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to what was to have been “the final solution to the Jewish problem.” It was not only Hitler and his leaders, but all Germans who bore the guilt.

So, too, the Egyptians were not innocent bystanders.  They benefited from the labors of the slaves.  They heard their cries and their groans.  They saw their affliction.  Yet, they chose not to intervene, not to protest, not to say anything.  Their hearts were hardened, too.  They had elevated a human being to the level of a god and blindly followed whatever he instructed them to do, just as had the German people with respect to Adolf Hitler.

Are there innocent bystanders in such a situation?  Are there innocent bystanders who encourage people to dedicate themselves to being human bombs that explode in crowded markets, restaurants, hotels and buses?  Are there innocent bystanders when schoolbooks are filled with hatred and lies about another people?  Are there innocent bystanders when discredited works of slanderous fiction such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the blood libel are touted as true? The innocent bystanders are those whose parents and children are killed by the human bombs,  who are slandered in the textbooks and libeled in the media.  May they, one day, not know the plague of hatred and ignorance, the results of hard hearts and closed minds.  May they, one day, be able to live in peace and security in their own Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom!

D’var Torah – Va’era

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.