Plagues, miracles and natural disasters are all recorded for us in this week’s parsha. They seem to make little impression, either on Pharaoh or even on the Jewish slaves. These events indicate how difficult it is to alter people’s preconceived perceptions and mindset.
Pharaoh is not impressed by the plagues because his own professional miracle makers were able to replicate the first three plagues. He therefore attributes all of the later plagues to forces of nature or superior professional miracle-makers that Moshe has somehow employed. The Jewish people also are, relatively speaking, little impressed by the plagues. They are so despondent as to their continued condition of slavery and, in fact, to their worsening situation since the onset of the rain of plagues, that they have little hope that the plagues or Moshe can or will deliver them from Egyptian bondage.
One of the hallmarks of a slave mentality is the feeling of hopelessness and ingrained pessimism that is engendered into the psyche of the slave. Though completely understandable as to why this should be so, it is nevertheless most counterproductive to the drive for personal freedom and emancipation that is necessary in order to eventually become a person who is free not only in body but in spirit as well.
The commentators, notably Ibn Ezra, state that this negative mentality persisted throughout the years in the desert of Sinai and was the contributing cause why that generation of former slaves could not enter the Land of Israel. For this reason we can understand the frustrations expressed by Moshe to God as recorded at the end of the parsha of last week. He is performing miracles left and right and no one seems to pay any attention to his feats.
Eventually Moshe comes to the realization that the Lord has been teaching him a basic lesson about human behavior. Great miracles, no matter how awesome and overwhelming, do not change human behavior and beliefs in any meaningful fashion. Pharaoh will be defeated only by force that strikes home to him personally – his first born child is killed and he is also in danger of being killed. It is not the miracle of the first-born killings that impresses him. It is the fear for his own safety that the miracle engendered that causes him to free the Jews, a decision that he almost immediately regrets. Miracles may raise Jewish faith temporarily but they do not form the methodology for developing lasting faith and commitment.
After all of the miracles, the Jews are still capable of making and worshipping a golden calf and rebelling against the rule of Moshe and God. Moshe realizes that no matter how many miracles occur, faith has to be nurtured and developed and maintained from the inside and not from outside circumstances and happenings.
Study, education, loyalty, and family become the keys to faith. At times miracles are necessary for the physical survival of the Jewish people. But the spiritual survival of Jews is wholly dependent upon Jews themselves. That is what God meant when He compared the patriarchs’ behavior to that of Moshe. They, to a great extent, did it on their own. Moshe learns to emulate them. So should we.
Rabbi Berel Wein Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com