By Joel Gimpel
Parshat Vaera begins with Hashem reassuring Moses that He will redeem the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and bring them into the land of Israel. After the Torah interjects a detailed genealogy of the tribe of Levi (Moses’ family), Hashem reminds Moses that Pharaoh will initially refuse to set the Jewish people free, and gives Moses more detailed instructions for the upcoming encounter with the king of Egypt.
Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh again to request a three-day hiatus from work so that the Jewish people can worship in the desert, and Aaron’s staff is miraculously turned into a serpent as a sign of their Divine mission. When the Egyptian sorcerers counter by transforming their staffs into snakes as well, Aaron’s staff swallows theirs. Even so, Pharaoh adamantly refuses to free the Jewish people, and the series of ten plagues begins. The first seven plagues are described in this portion: blood, frogs, lice, a swarm of wild beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. Despite the plagues, Pharaoh continues to refuse to free the Jewish people, as his heart is hardened. The Torah portion comes to a close in the middle of these momentous events.
Moses tells the Jews in Egypt the prophecy that he had just received from Hashem, in which Hashem relates His plan to free the Jews from their enslavement to the Egyptians and to take them as a nation who will receive the word of G-d at Sinai.
But the Jews didn’t listen to what he was saying, due to “broken spirit and hard work.”
G-d then spoke to Moses, saying, “Go speak to Pharaoh, and tell him to free the Jews.” To which Moses responded, “Even the Jews didn’t listen to me, so how can I expect Pharaoh to listen to me?”
There is some difficulty in Moses’ logic. After all, the Torah tells why the Jews didn’t have the patience and presence of mind to appreciate Moses words – they were short of spirit and overworked. Pharaoh, on the other hand, was living a pampered existence. Every day he would hang out at his own private swimming pool, the Nile, and chill out. (Had he lived today, he would probably have been featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!) So how can Moses compare Pharaoh’s situation to that of the Jews?
Perhaps, a close look at what is happening in America today might yield some insights that will help us understand what Moses meant over 3000 years ago.
We live today in a “sound bite generation.” Practically all the information that we consume, be it on television, the radio, newspapers or magazines, is fed to us in short sound bites, and hardly ever in depth. Many of us have lost the ability to focus on a given topic or idea for more than a few minutes before we lose interest or our minds start to wander. And, of course, our politicians capitalize on this by campaigning with sound bites, not substance. We are assured, for example, that George W. Bush is a “compassionate conservative,” which to me implies that there are some conservatives who are not compassionate.
In contrast, philosophers in years past (and a few in our midst today) would sit and ponder deep questions for hours on end, with tremendous concentration. Today, most of us can only handle a short article in Time or Newsweek, or a thirty-minute news program with brief headlines about the issues that come up. Even our prayer services are shortened because there is only so much that we can pay attention to.(including this Midrash). We seem to have no time for real in-depth analyses of the more important things in life. Our attention span gets shorter and shorter, even as our life span gets longer and longer. Why is that?
There seems to be an inverse relationship between the ability to focus, concentrate, and analyze subjects in-depth, and the materialism of our times, in which we have every conceivable pleasure, game, and luxury at our disposal. Maybe our minds function best when they are not competing with our bodies. When we don’t have all these “toys” and other diversions, we can afford ourselves the time to think about the big picture, the real important issues, and the deeper meaning of life.
And maybe that’s what Moses was saying to G-d. The Jews didn’t listen to me because they were too caught up in their difficult, backbreaking labor, and just didn’t have the presence of mind to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. Pharaoh, although he doesn’t have that excuse, would definitely not have the patience or time to pay attention to me either. He is too caught up in all his diversions and pleasures for him to give some serious attention to what I am telling him. Maybe he’ll give me a few minutes, but then he will probably surf to a different channel or Web site. There’s too much going on in his life to preoccupy him, for him to pay any attention to the really important stuff that I have to tell him.
This idea is an important lesson for all of us in life, and it should be something for us to think about and pay some serious attention to-that is, of course, if we actually take the time to listen to this entire Midrash before our attention span runs out! You see what I mean?