Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” — Exodus 9:27-28
The Torah portion for this week is Va’eira, which means “and I appeared,” from Exodus 6:2–9:35, and the Haftorah is from Ezekiel 28:25–29:21.
The story of the ten plagues is awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping. The plagues were so spectacular that they stole the show, so to speak. However, another story was developing beneath the surface that we should also pay attention to — the story of Pharaoh and his personal relationship with God.
In last week’s reading, Pharaoh was first introduced to God. Moses said, “This is what . . . the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go’” (Exodus 5:1). In response, Pharaoh replied, “Who is the LORD . . . I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Pharaoh did not recognize the God of Israel. He did not accept the notion that there might be a power greater than he. Pharaoh did not know God, and so God decided to make Himself known through these great wonders and miracles that eventually brought Pharaoh to his knees.
Pharaoh learned exactly who God is in stages. First, the Nile was turned to blood. But Pharaoh’s magicians were able to repeat the trick, so Pharaoh concluded that the God of Israel may be powerful, but not more powerful than him.
With the plague of gnats, Pharaoh came to a different conclusion. His magicians weren’t able to replicate the plague and they were defeated by the God of Israel. They told the Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). Pharaoh and his advisers recognized that the God of Israel was stronger than they, but only by a little bit – it was just a “finger of God” — powerful, but not that great.
This week’s portion comes to a climax with the plague of hail. Finally, when Egypt was pounded by fire and hail and Pharaoh stood in his decimated country – where miraculously, only Goshen, the land belonging to the Israelites, was spared – only then did he come to know the God he once denied. Pharaoh said, “This time I have sinned . . . The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” He then asked Moses to pray for him.
The Jewish sages teach that God sent the plagues not only to teach Pharaoh a lesson, but also so that the Israelites would learn – and we as well – how powerful and great our God is. Many people go through life thinking that they are in control or that the universe centers on them. In short, they make themselves “God.” However as we read this portion, let us learn the lesson that Pharaoh had to learn the hard way. We do not call the shots, and we are not in control. We must know who the God of Israel is and worship Him accordingly.