“The ‘Outstretched Arm’ and the ‘Mighty Hand’”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, the process of the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt begins, as the first seven of the ten plagues are visited upon Egypt.

At the conclusion of last week’s parasha, parashat Shemot (Exodus 5:22-23), Moses complains to G-d for having sent him to do evil to the people, for since the time that he came to Pharaoh to speak in G-d’s name, things had become worse, and G-d had not rescued His people.

G-d responds by telling Moses that he will now see what the Al-mighty will do to Pharaoh, Exodus 6:1, “Kee v’yad cha’zah’kah y’shahl’chaym, oo’v’yad cha’zah’kah y’gar’shaym may’ahr’tzo,” for through a strong hand will he [Pharaoh] send them out, and with a strong hand will he drive them from his land.

G-d then sends Moses to bring a new message to the people, that He will take the people out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, rescue them from their slavery, redeem them with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, take them to Him for a people and be their G-d. He also promises to bring the people to the land which He swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Despite this most optimistic of messages, the disillusioned masses reject the new message of redemption that Moses delivers because of (Exodus 6:9), “shortness of breath and hard work” (see Va’eira 5770-2010). G-d then urges Moses to speak directly to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and demand that he send the Children of Israel from his land. Sounding rather discouraged, Moses says to G-d, Exodus 6:12, “Hayn B’nei Yisrael lo shahm’oo ay’lai, v’aych yish’mah’ay’nee Pharoh, vah’ah’nee ah’rahl s’fah’tah’yim,” Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me, and I have uncircumsized lips!

G-d responds to Moses’s disillusionment by commanding Moses and Aaron to speak to Pharaoh again and to (Exodus 6:13), “tell Pharaoh the king of Egypt to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.”

The Netziv offers a most insightful interpretation of the underlying issues in this complex discussion.

The Netziv points out that there are occasions where the verse speaks of G-d’s “yad cha’za’kah,” mighty hand, and other instances where scripture speaks of G-d’s “z’roah n’too’yah,” outstretched arm.

Why should that be? By way of explanation, the Netziv cites a well-known talmudic parable of a bird in a man’s hand. The man holding a bird in his hand has the power to either free the bird or to crush it.

The Netziv explains that because all the Jewish people were now together in Egypt, Pharaoh had the unprecedented ability, if he felt his empire was truly threatened, to destroy the entire people with a single blow. By smiting Egypt in a series of fast moving plagues, G-d never gave Pharaoh the time or opportunity, to gather his thoughts in order to realize what was really happening to his land. This, according to the Netziv, is the meaning of the outstretched arm. It was not so much the power, but the persistence of G-d’s smiting power.

Although the Al-mighty prevented Pharaoh from crushing the Jewish people, there apparently was another issue that impacted on G-d’s decision regarding whether or not to bring redemption to the Jewish People. Even if the person holding the bird released it unharmed, the efforts would be rendered useless if the bird did not wish to escape. Hence the need for a “mighty hand” in order to ensure that the bird flies away when offered the opportunity. That is why G-d tells Moses to inform the people that the redemption that is at hand is mandatory, not optional. The people must leave Egypt whether they like it or not. After all, how foolish it would be for Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the people, only to discover that the people were content to remain where they are.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is a controversial theory in psychology that dates back to August of 1973, when a pair of thieves held four Stockholm bank employees hostage at gunpoint in a vault for six days. When the hostages were finally released, they hugged and kissed their captives, declaring their loyalty to them, even as their kidnappers were arrested and sent off to jail. This reaction is also known as “terror-bonding” or “traumatic bonding.” Some experts, however, see it largely as a figment of the media’s overactive imagination.

Nevertheless, the reaction of hostages and their reputed sympathy for their captives has occurred in many high profile cases. Patty Hearst, who was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, joined her captors and became their accomplice in bank robbery in order to support their radical political thinking.

Of course, the Midrash tells of the “Zevach ha’Dam,” the wild blood and wine orgies and horrific gladiator spectacles that the Israelite slaves celebrated with their Egyptian masters (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-2009).

Perhaps the need for ten plagues was not only to keep Pharaoh off balance and to make it impossible for him to crush the Jews, but also because of the need for G-d to use His “outstretched arm” for another purpose, to embrace the Jews after each plague, showing how He had protected them and their property, while the Egyptians suffered, and Egypt slowly declined in the massive destruction. With His outstretched hand, G-d embraced the Jewish people in an attempt to wean them from their Egyptian masters, with whom they had identified for so long.

It is also important to remember that the Midrash describes that, at first, the Jews voluntarily entered into servitude, embracing the work as a civic duty to help Egypt build the great store cities of Pitom and Ramses. It was only later, that the Hebrews became slaves. Now it was necessary to separate them from their enslavers and win back their loyalty to G-d and to Moses.

Tragically, all the efforts to win back the loyalties of the common people, were unsuccessful. The Jewish people of that generation had already developed a deeply entrenched “slave mentality,” which they could not shed. The generation of Egyptian servitude could never act as free people, and therefore was destined to perish in the wilderness.

Only a new nation, born and nurtured in freedom, could commit themselves to the Al-mighty and enter into the Promised Land as G-d’s people.

May you be blessed.