Sometimes it seems to us that our work is paying off, and it turns out that it is not. Sometimes it seems to us that we are failing in what we do, and it turns out that things prove better than expected.
And, many times, this disparity between reality and what we believe it to be has to do with us, with our fears, with our own insecurity.
In Parashat Vaera we see that Moshe was afraid that the people would not believe him, that Pharaoh would not accept his request to release them, but the Lord had given him signs to demonstrate, and also Aharon to speak for him. Moshe “displayed wonders before the people and they believed him. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned for them and had seen their suffering, they bowed down and worshiped Him.” (Exodus 4:30-31)
The context described in detail in Parashat Shemot (the previous Shabbat) shows that Pharaoh’s cruelty and the brutality of slavery are getting worse. Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge the Lord. He rejects Moshe’s proposal to allow the people to go out into the desert and makes life for the Israelites even harder: they must meet the brick-making quota, only now they are forced to find straw on their own. The people turn against Moshe and Aharon: “May the Lord look at you and judge you! You have made Pharaoh and his officers hate us, and you have put a sword in their hands to kill us.” (Exodus 5:21)
Moshe, complaining back to the Lord, says: “Why, Lord, have you caused trouble for this people? For this have you sent me? Ever since I stood before Pharaoh to speak on Your behalf he has caused trouble for this people and You have not saved Your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23)
In this week’s parashah Vaera, although God has assured him that he will save His people in time, Moshe says: “If the Israelites do not listen to me, why should Pharaoh do it, since I speak with wavering lips?” (Exodus 6:12). In response, he receives the announcement of the departure from Egypt and the Lord asks him to demand that Pharaoh let the Hebrews go.
Then, faced with Moshe’s pretext about his inability to achieve eloquence and continuity in his saying, the Lord “counterattacks” by strengthening Moshe’s problem-solving capacity with an apparently subtle change in the plot of the story: He assigns an important role to Aharon.
The process of Yetziat Mitzraim, the departure from Egypt, is a learning experience for all who participate: Moshe must learn from his insecurity, Aharon must exercise his humility in the face of this shared leadership, Pharaoh must get off a pedestal that dwindles in the face of the Kadosh Baruch Hu and the People of Israel must accept that they are ready for freedom… or so they should be. And, in this apprenticeship, Moshe had to understand that leadership, even at the highest level, is often marked by failure until what needs to be corrected is corrected.
On the other hand, slavery has perverted both the Egyptian masters and the Israelite slaves, so the task of Moshe and Aharon will be to break the hardened heart of Pharaoh as well as to restore confidence in the crushed spirits of Bnei Israel.
In many ways, the second half of this mission—making the Israelites ready for freedom—was the most difficult. The years of captivity undermined the self-confidence of the Children of Israel. Rebuilding the spirit of his people was the challenge Moshe would face for the rest of his life.
The first seven plagues begin to parade from blood to hail.
If we read this portion of the text like a story, we intuit before each plague that the liberation is imminent, although Moshe has already been warned: “But I will harden the heart of Pharaoh and increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. However, Pharaoh will not listen to you and I will impose My power in Egypt and I will drive out My armies, My people, the Bnei Israel, from the land of Egypt, with great punitive judgments. And the Egyptians will know that I am Adonai, when I extend My power over Egypt and deliver the Bnei Israel from among them." (Exodus 7:3)
In fact, not only does Pharaoh not intend to listen, but it is precisely the notion of a speaking God that his entire being rejects.
Although in this parashah it seems otherwise, since there are still a few more plagues to convince Pharaoh, the mission to overthrow the tyrant was relatively simple. The Torah requires only a few short chapters to guide us through the ten plagues and the crossing of the Reed Sea. However, the task of building a free nation was much more complicated. It was the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes it’s easy to be successful. Conditions can be very favorable. The economic, political or personal moment can be good. When there is economic well-being, most businesses flourish. In the first few months after a general election, the successful leader brings with him the charisma of victory. And, likewise, in the first year, most marriages are happy. You don’t need great attributes to be successful in good times.
But then the weather changes. In the long run, it always happens. There is when many businesses, politicians and marriages fail. There are times when even the greatest stumble—and in those instances, character is tested. The great men or women are not the ones who never fail, but those who survive that stumbling block and keep going, refusing to be defeated, never giving up. They keep testing. They learn from every mistake they make. They treat failure as a learning experience. And with each defeat they grow stronger, wiser and more determined. That is the story of Moshe’s life in both parashiot, Shemot and Vaera.
In Jewish tradition, we honor Moshe’s achievements by calling him “Moshe Rabbeinu,” “Moses our teacher,” not because he led us to freedom, but because he taught us how to be free. He accepted that double task and, by confronting the pride and power of Pharaoh and the fear and despair of our people, he became the model of a leader who is capable not only of overthrowing tyranny, but also of creating the conditions for a lasting freedom. And, above all things, he learned to overcome his own mistakes and difficulties.
May we learn from ourselves and from those around us, find the way to achieve our own and common objectives, overcoming the obstacles that we find in our way and learning to get up every time we fall.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier