Reviving this oldie but goodie from 2010 as we pass from Va’eira into Bo’ …
The Basics of Va’eira
- Diary on last week’s parshah, Shemot, by ramara
- Guide for the Perplexed: What’s a parshah?
- Here’s the full text of this week’s portion, Va’eira, and an animated summary and commentary by the wonderful crew at the G-dcast:
Va’eira is the second act in the violent disruption of history and memory that is the Exodus story, the struggle between the ancient Israelites and their Egyptian enslavers, formerly their gracious hosts, under a monarch “who did not know Joseph,” (1:8) the Israelites’ savior centuries prior and favored son of their patriarch, Jacob.
This portion begins the tortured bargaining between the Pharaoh and Moses for the Israelites’ liberation, with G-d calling the shots and raining down plague after plague on the Egyptians.
The story is an archetype of absolutism in crisis. Pharaoh is the tyrant who knows the game has changed, totally and irrevocably, but won’t let go. He holds out longer than any sane person would. He tries to find the smallest quantum of dignity he can give out just to get rid of the smelly frogs. Then the boils, then the lice, and so on.
This Isn’t Just Any Bible Story
The Exodus story is the only one we are encouraged — even commanded — to tell every year at the Passover table, where we’ll be just over two lunar months from now. But we don’t just read it out loud. We re-live it. We tell each other, usually in Aramaic, “Today, we are slaves. Next year, we will be free.”
This is happening to us now. This is today’s news.
This year, Va’eira comes at a delicate moment. This year, I can only read the story through the prism I live inside every day — that of a married gay American.
As I write this, Paul Katami, one of the plaintiffs in the gutsy federal lawsuit against Proposition 8 in California, is choking back tears on the stand. He is begging to be allowed to marry the love of his life. He is asking how their commitment could be lumped together with pedophilia as a ‘threat to children.’
Last year, we encountered Va’eira with the joyous noise of President Obama’s election and inauguration still ringing in our ears. My husband and I had worked our tails off for the Obama field office in our south St. Louis neighborhood, and after so many losses four years prior — Dean, Kerry, the fight against Missouri’s marriage amendment — it felt so good to be on the winning side.
Every hour and dollar we put into the Obama campaign we also put into the fight to save marriage equality in California from Proposition 8. We hosted a fundraiser in our home, phone-banked over the Internet, you name it. After we left the election night celebration just before midnight, we turned on the computer at home, and the results coming in from California hit us in the gut.
There we were again — how many times now? We’ve lost count — having the central relationship of our lives put to the whim of voters, legislators, judges — people who didn’t know us.
It was crushing.
So much had been riding on California, and when the vote was finally called, it was the death of hope.
It was the death of hope that someday soon, we could take care of each other without our own government working against us.
It was also a sentence. You’re going to spend years, the voters told us, maybe decades more in your legal no-man’s land, begging your neighbors to recognize you. Now go back into your little box and be grateful for it, faggots.
Thank G-d We Have the Exodus Story
We Jews read our exodus from Egypt as a piercing beacon for social justice. Without it, we might just lose the will to fight against seemingly impossible odds.
We have been exactly where Moses and Aaron stood in last week’s parashah, just as they first approached Pharaoh with the words, “So said YHWH, God of Israel, ‘Send out My People.” (5:1)
How Pharaoh must have shimmered with raw political power. He must have looked like a god compared to the shabby, sandal-wearing sheep herders in his presence. He had no idea who or what this so-called god of theirs was. Why should he? Why should he budge even one bit?
It isn’t until we get into Va’eira that Pharaoh starts to understand the power working through Moses and Aaron. The bit with the snakes (7:10-12) is nice enough, but right away, YHWH exponentially raises the stakes by turning every drop of water in the land to blood (7:19).
Then YHWH covers the land in frogs, which the magicians can match well enough, but it’s at this point that Pharaoh first acknowledges he is in a different game than he might have thought at first: “Entreat YHWH to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let out the people so that they may sacrifice to YHWH.” (8:4)
Once the frogs are gone, of course, Pharaoh again refuses to let the people go.
Fine. We all knew his heart wasn’t in the bargain. We all knew this was going to escalate. But the lice, the beasts, the death of the livestock? We’re not even halfway through the plagues yet, and already, the people of Egypt are writhing in agony, reduced to poverty in the blink of an eye.
We’re long past the point where Pharaoh’s magicians tell him they’re outmatched, that Moses and Aaron’s god is real and too powerful to mess with. Still Pharaoh bargains. After the beasts, he agrees to let the people go out, but not far (8:24). Then he changes his mind again. And again.
From the text, we know that the plot is rigged. G-d knows that Pharaoh isn’t going to do the right thing, and even if he decided to, G-d has rigged the whole story to end in ever greater atrocities (6:3-4). But we’re not there yet. We’re still in a story about human beings with free will, and we can’t stop hoping that Pharaoh — in the face of overwhelming proof that there will be no return to the way things were — will do the right thing.
But he doesn’t. And it drives us mad.
Why can’t he just let them go? Doesn’t he get it? Doesn’t he care about his people? Is he so blind to what this YHWH is capable of that he would stick to his defiance? And out of what? Pride? Stubbornness? His own sense of misguided godhood?
The Outstretched Hand of Truth. Slow Motion.
Since gay couples in North America (like us) started getting married in 2003, it’s been obvious to anyone with a brain that none of the dire predictions made by equality’s enemies have come true. Nor will they. There is no bestiality, no group marriage, and by every measure, children — all children — are better off in jurisdictions with legal equality for gay couples.
Unless you’re married to your own anti-gay bias, equality is a simply a win-win.
People who are against equality for LGBT couples have run out of ‘facts’ to hide behind. Bias is all they have left — clothed, at its very best, in some religious-looking garment.
That was made as clear as day in the debates leading up the defeat of marriage equality bills in New York in December and New Jersey earlier this month. In the New York Senate, the only opponent of equality who stood up to defend his views was a Pentecostal minister. Everyone else was silent.
In America, naked expression of social bias isn’t generally cool. You’d have to be a royal putz to get up in front of live cameras and tell everyone that gay people are less worthy than their neighbors, even if they are good for upping real estate values.
And behind it all, the demographic clock keeps ticking. The marriage issue has lost its power (if it ever had any) as a Republican get-out-the-vote instrument. Every day, tens of thousands of older voters pass from this life and are replaced by teens and twenty-somethings for whom out, committed gay couples are an unremarkable part of the world as it is.
So What Is Va’eira Trying to Teach Us?
We don’t have Pharaoh today. We have millions of lesser pharaohs instead.
Perfectly nice people most of the time, and may G-d bless them always. But a twisted reading of democracy has empowered them to vote their neighbors’ rights into or out of existence.
I think Va’eira is trying to teach us that when it comes to the dignity of our families, we can’t bargain with people who don’t know us, who don’t recognize the fullness of our humanity.
I think Va’eira is trying to teach us we can’t bargain with people who are consumed with holding on to a dying image of their privileged place in the order of things.
I think Va’eira is trying to teach us that when it comes to justice for something so important, our civil actions must be big, swift, unmistakable, and game-changing. Like the Olson-Boies lawsuit underway at this very moment.
I think Va’eira is trying to teach us that if we send mixed signals or accept compromise, all we do is prolong the pain of the status quo. Fighting for marriage is gutsy, risky, and not everyone thinks it’s the best idea.
But if we ask for anything less than our rights as equals, should the pharaohs deal with us as equals?
Why Does It Have to Be Like This?
Why does there have to be so much suffering in Va’eira? Why couldn’t G-d just beam the Israelites out of Egypt? Or prevent them from falling into slavery in the first place? Why couldn’t G-d just turn Pharaoh into a mensch? Or put him and his army into a trance while the Israelites made a hasty exit?
Or why, in a society built on the simple truth of equal justice under law, do we have to fight to be treated as equals?
The answer of course is that our story had to be what it is for us to be who we are.
We have to learn every year that in a world of free will, equality and dignity can come at a staggering price, one we have to be ready to pay. Or exact from our oppressors.
We have to live through powerlessness, facing betrayal and denial at the hands of our neighbors over and over again to be — when we finally come out on the other side — better, more compassionate people.
Look no further than the many thousands of American children being raised by gay and lesbian couples. They turn out perfectly fine and just like everyone else’s kids but for one thing: a more developed sense of empathy for the outcast.
Torah teaches that we were created with a divine sense of justice within us. It is universal and indestructable, but it needs be lived out and experienced with our whole bodies and all their senses. Daily, if at all possible.
But imagine this. Imagine we could convince G-d to intervene in a big way, to erase the past and bring about total and instant equality for LGBT people throughout the land.
No more crippling memories of being shut out and shut down. No more separate tax returns, no more sobbing outside closed emergency room doors. No more children torn from loving parents, no more careers ended out of bias. Acceptance. Inclusion. Bliss.
But suppose that in exchange, we had to give up the sharpened sense of compassion that only our pain could have given us. Instead of who we are in this world, we would be some breezy, happy-go-lucky tribe with with not a care in the world, free to immerse ourselves in our relatively prosperous lives.
Would we want that?
Would we want that as Jews, as people committed to a G-d of justice?
If we were those people, would we be the right ones to bring about a better world for all the rest of its outcasts?
While We Meditate the Long View…
In the midst of Va’eira, all that is happening is that G-d is raising the stakes. G-d is making the status quo unbearably painful.
Right now, we are nothing but a frightened, downtrodden mass of flawed, deeply self-doubting people about to take the first steps towards freedom. There’s nothing pretty about it, and we have no idea what’s coming next.
But maybe G-d does, and maybe that will be enough.