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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Exodus/Shmot - Va-era 101
Posted January, 2001 by Reb Yosef
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Parashat Va'era begins in Sefer Sh'mot (the Book of Exodus) at Perek Vav, pasuk bet (Chapter 6, verse 2) and continues through and includes all of Perek Tet (Chapter 9).  Although there is a great deal to this Parashah, it is here that, through the commentaries of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, we find a beautiful definition of the relationship that exists between God and B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel), the Jewish people.  In Perek Bet (Chapter 2), we see God speaking to Moshe (Moses) as He says:

4. And I also established My covenant with them to give them [Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov] the land of Canaan, the land where they stayed as strangers, in which they sojourned; 

5. and I have also heard the groaning of the Children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage and I have kept My covenant in mind; 

6. Therefore say unto the Children of Israel:  I am Hashem and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, will deliver you from their slavery, and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great punishing judgments, 

7. and I will take you to Me for a people, I will be to you a God, and you will get to know that I am Hashem your God, Who bringeth you out from under the burdens of Egypt, 

The key words for this week's commentary are found in pasuk zayin (verse 7).  Rav Hirsch says the following: 

[God is saying], then when you will have become upstanding free, and once again conscious of your rights, will I take you to be My people.  As soon as you become free you become My people.  My people, without a country, without a patch of land, a people, a Nation, by belonging to Me and by nothing else. 

Lee L'am (to Me a people) - In these two short words, by which here, for the first time the whole future destiny of Israel is expressed, lies the specific difference, the speciality of Judaism, in which it is so absolutely unique.  People thoughtlessly choose to include what they so unfittingly call "the Jewish Religion" in the category of religions generally, as being also a kind of religion, and then afterwards they are surprised to find so much within the purlieus of this "religion" which lies quite outside the sphere of ordinary "religions."  Lee -- L'am, to God - to be a People!  This itself already tells us that Judaism, Judaism founded by God, is, in no wise, a religion.  In Judaism we do find also what is generally understood by religion, but the idea of Judaism is something infinitely broader and different.  In "religions," God has only temples, churches, priesthoods, and congregations,etc., nations, peoples, have only a relationship to kings, presidents, leaders, and become constituted and built up, on the idea of a State and not on religion and God.  But here God founds not a Church, but a Nation, a whole national life is to form itself on Him.  As a nation, not merely as a religion, is Israel His.  Am is the term used in Hebrew to designate a nation looked on not as a corporate body of men (goy), but as a completely self-contained number of people living in social relationships to one another.  So when God says v'lakachti etchem Lee l'am, it means nothing else but: - the conditions of your ordinary social life are to be guided by My judgment and discernment; - the conditions of your ordinary social life are to be a revelation of My spirit.  So that when a later generation (Read Yirmeyahu [Jeremiah] Perek Zayin [Chapter 7]) was apt to relegate its whole relationship to God to sacrifices and life in the Temple, and to entrench themselves against reproaches of social sins and social degeneration behind the "the Temple of God, the Temple of God," the Prophet could thunder against them "they themselves should be the temple of God," and further on adding explanatorily, "for on the day that I brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt I spake not unto them of sacrifices, not for that did I take them into service.  But this it is, concerning which I took them into service: obey My voice then I will be your God."  It is true that God did also speak to use of offerings, yea, on the day of our deliverance from Egypt, it was an offering and only an offering by which He constituted us into a nation, but He did not constitute us into a Temple congregation "to bring offerings," He wished to constitute us into a people, an am, by that offering.  It was just that first institution of an offering that founded the State on its most essential basic plan, as we hope to show when we come to it.  While other nations have their national bond in their country, the Jewish nation has theirs in their common God. 

In a previous commentary, I discussed something I learned from Rav Shea Harlig concerning the concept that God wanted to put forth His plan for humankind three different ways, with the first two being less than successful.  God began with a man, Adam, and this did not succeed.  Then He tried the family of Noach, with the same lack of success.  Then, He built a Nation, B'nai Yisrael/the Jewish people, and this is still living and thriving.  To paraphrase the words of the great American writer, Mark Twain, "that the Jewish people have survived as a nation, without a country or land of their own, defies all sense of reason and is, by its nature, miraculous." 

I would conclude with a couple of points that warrant mentioning.  Other religions would declare that Judaism is nothing without the sacrificial system.  Clearly, such people have not read the writings of Yirmiyahu.  Judaism is the relationship between a Nation, a People, and God, and God's relationship with that Nation or People.  Everything else is secondary. 


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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