parsha of the week

Taking failure to heart, without losing heart


The first aliyah of Vaera, this week’s parsha, Vaera, concludes with a superfluous statement, one that has already been: “G-d [then] spoke to [both] Moses and Aaron. He gave them instructions regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Israelites out of Egypt.” (6:13)

On a simplistic level, Moses and Aaron had already convinced the people that they were the real deal, sent by G-d Himself (4:31), and Pharaoh was also aware that Moshe and Aharon were representing the Israelites in a mission to leave, even as Pharaoh denied G-d and subverted their attempt at achieving independence for the Israelites through denying clemency and increasing the labor requirements.

And so our verse is odd, because Moshe and Aaron had already begun this process, even if, as G-d said in 3:19-20, it may take awhile for them to achieve their goals. Which is OK! Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, you don’t create an exodus movement overnight.

In this light, how can we understand the instructions given in 6:13?

The first thing we need to understand is context. Yes, the people believed at the end of chapter 4, but that doesn’t mean that a few verses later they can’t be livid at Moshe for causing the workload to be expanded. Pharaoh may have accepted that Moshe was the leader, but he thought nothing of it because he knew Moshe was powerless against him.

So what is the commandment to Moshe? It’s to take your failure to heart, but not to lose heart. To grow from your experience, and to try again.

Consider some of the commentaries on this verse:

Ibn Ezra: Moshe was instructed not to lose his temper against the Israelites, who themselves were short of breath (and perhaps impertinent)

Rabbenu Bachaye: Moshe had to warn the people to no longer follow the idols they worshipped. The word v’y’tzavem (and He commanded them) is often used in this form to indicate a command against idolatry.

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi: Quoting the Midrash, he distinguishes between the two missives: Be kind and patient with the Israelites, and be respectful to Pharaoh as he is a king. Even if Pharaoh gets angry at you, take it. Don’t let it get to you. Let the Israelites know again that you are taking them out, and warn Pharaoh about the benefit he ought to consider which will come from sending them out, namely not suffering through the punishment G-d will otherwise send.

Beyond the subliminal messages about how to relate to the people, with kindness and patience, as well as the religious message about idolatry, I think the two lessons Moshe took here are very important too.

Growth from failure has no comparable learning curve. The adage of “never make the same mistake twice” only works when the mistake is so devastating and life changing that a person will take every precaution and learn every skill necessary to avoid that terrible feeling again.

For Moshe, it works. After the plague of blood, the Israelites don’t complain to him in Egypt anymore, certainly not about his role as leader. And the Egyptians clearly see that Moshe is in the driver’s seat, as most of their complaints are directed at Pharaoh for letting the plagues go on. Moshe has clearly taken his initial failure to heart and changed his entire approach to both the Israelite population and the king of Egypt.

The second lesson, related to the first, is that when someone tries to put you down, take it and grow from it. Make yourself stronger on account of it. That person is inconsequential. Those who put you down are not worthy of your presence or attention.

These are great lessons for the regular population. But what about people in positions of power? It certainly is disturbing to see insults flying in the higher echelons of our nation. It would be nice to see insults toned down, so that conversations can be geared toward a basic kind of respect that well-meaning people should accord one another.

On a more relevant level, the more I engage in social media, the more I see how life-sucking it can be, not just because of the wasted time, but because of the heated rhetoric that comes from both sides of the aisle.

Disagreement is one thing, but basic decency and respect should be paramount in any kind of discussion. Unfortunately today, very often there is no discussion. Just name calling, bashing, defriending, to the point that we hear our own echo chambers and view the other side as an equivalent of human refuse.

All of this is very disheartening.

Pharaoh was a king and needed to be treated with respect. Moshe was granted an audience with Pharaoh, even though we can safely say Pharaoh loathed the Jewish leader. There is no excuse for slavery, so we root for Moshe and view Pharaoh as the evil dictator. But if Pharaoh had reasoned and said, “You know what? I’ll remove the taskmasters and pay a decent wage. But I really need you to stay in Egypt!” do you think the presence in Egypt would have ended when it did? Or might it have gone the distance of the complete 400 years that had been promised to Avraham?

I vote it would have lasted 400 years and that the three-day journey Moshe requested would have been that: three days, with a return to a kinder Egypt for the remaining years of exile.

Pharaoh’s stubbornness brought his demise. Will our continued stubbornness in the political discourse bring about ours?