Our Inheritance is Our Task
Parashat Va'era, Exodus 6:2–9:35
Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Shuvah Yisrael, Bloomfield, CT
It has been said that the life of Moses can be seen as three distinct movements, forty years each. Moses spends the first forty years thinking he is somebody. He has fallen by providence into the royal court of Pharaoh and is raised as a prince of Egypt while his people, the Jewish people unknown to him, suffer. In the second act he discovers that he is nobody. In a rather extended midlife crisis he winds up down and out, tending sheep in the wilderness among the tribes of Midian. But it is in the third forty years of Moses’ life that he discovers what Hashem can do with somebody who accepts he is nobody.
Parashat Va’era begins as Parashat Shemot ended, with Moses returning to the presence of Hashem, pleading petulantly. Moses had been sent to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelite slaves. But instead of releasing them, Pharaoh takes away their straw for brick making and they are absolutely outraged. Moses asks the Holy One how he might expect Pharaoh to listen to him, when even the children of Israel seem totally uninterested in his leadership. Moses goes so far as to accuse God of being unfaithful. “My Lord, why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name he did evil to this people, but you did not rescue your people” (Exod 5:22–23).
What appears to be an absolutely audacious indictment of the Holy One by Moses may actually be a sign of his maturation as a leader and as a Hebrew.
By most normal measurements of success, Moses would seem to be on a continual downhill spiral. He has gone from prince to outlaw, to sheep farmer, to dissident, to rejected and dejected labor leader. But something unique is happening in Moses. Instead of fleeing Egypt forever, Moses returns to the presence of Israel’s God to plead the case of a people that he has oddly identified with since his youth (2:11). As Moses is returning to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, his wife Zipporah circumcises their sons with a flint knife, a material act of identification with the covenant between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This timely interruption to the narrative suggests that Moses no longer sees himself as an appointed deliverer from outside the community of faith, but now as a fully enfranchised member of the family of Israel. In other words Moses has come to recognize and appreciate his heritage and his task.
What follows is a rebuke and an encouragement from Hashem that are in some ways indistinguishable from each other. God spoke to Moses saying, “I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with my Name Hashem (YHVH) I did not make myself known to them” (6:2–3). Prior to calling Moses into service, the Torah informs us, God remembered the covenant with the patriarchs (2:24), but now the disclosure of the divine Name establishes the covenant with Moses as part of the natural progression of the patriarchal covenant. Moses and Israel are entering into their inheritance together.
Hashem then promises that the land of Caanan will be part of the inheritance; it will be Eretz Yisrael (6:4). Then, after stating his intention to liberate Israel and take them for his people, Hashem declares again concerning the land, “And I shall give it to you as a heritage (morashah)” (6:8). This Hebrew term, morashah, inheritance or heritage, appears twice in the Torah. It is first mentioned in relation to the Land of Israel, and later in Deuteronomy 33:4, in connection with the giving of Torah. The term morashah is used in two places to teach us that the inheritance represented by the Land of Israel can remain ours only if we commit ourselves to the keeping of Torah.
In the same way that Moses the liberator, lawgiver, and teacher needed to mature into his heritage as a fully enfranchised member of Hashem’s holy nation, so we, the sons and daughters of Israel, must mature into our heritage as well. The promises of morashah—Land and Torah—are inseparable. The thrice-daily prayer Alenu declares “our inheritance is our task.” We are called to be a light to the nations, to draw all people to the service of the one true God. This is our heritage, this is our call, and it cannot be measured by any of the normal standards of this world.
This commentary, originally posted in 2016, is a fitting reminder of our calling as we enter the new year of 2019.