Vaera 5781

By: Elisa Miller

Have you had your Covid-19 vaccine yet? Are you planning on getting the series yourself? What kind of messages have you heard about the vaccines? Are you skeptical? Do you trust the person who is giving you the information about the vaccine?

Parasha Vaera opens with Moses talking to G-d, who has just told him that he will indeed bring the Israelites to freedom outside of Egypt. Moses responds by telling G-d that “they didn’t listen to me, because their spirit was broken and the labor was harsh” or put another  way—from another translation—The people of Israel would not listen to Moses from shortness of breath and cruel bondage (Ex. Ch6, v 9).

Adina Roth asks “what prevents people from receiving comfort? The cruelty of slavery is that individual liberties are removed and harsh bondage is imposed. There is little agency when large forces of power control the parameters of one’s life.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said “the people didn’t listen to Moses because he had brought them messages from G-d before and they had done nothing to improve their situation… They had no reason to think he would do so in the future.”

When Moses met G-d at the burning bush, he kept refusing to lead the Israelites because “he was not a man of words. He was slow of speech and tongue. He lacked eloquence. He could not sway crowds. He was not an inspirational leader.”

It turns out that Moses with both right and wrong, according to Rabbi Sacks. “It has nothing to do with his failures as a leader or public speaker. In fact it had nothing to do with Moses at all. They didn’t listen because their spirit was broken and the labor was harsh.”

Mainmonides  is quoted by Rabbi Sacks (from the Guide for the perplexed) The Torah has two aims: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body…spiritual achievement is higher than material achievement, but we need to ensure the latter first, because a person suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat or cold, cannot grasp as idea even if it is communicated by others, much less arrive at it by his own reasoning.”

The minute I read those words, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You all have probably seen the pyramid graphic where the base represents out physiological needs: food, shelter and other basics needed to survive. Next come of the safety needs—protection against harm done to us by others. Third is the need for love and belonging, followed by our desire for recognition and esteem. At the top of the pyramid is what Maslow called self-actualization—fulfilling our potential—become the person we feel we could and should be.

Over the years, Maslow’s hierarchy has been revised. The original model states that a level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving into a higher pursuit. According to Wikipedia, today’s scholars prefer to think of the levels as continuously overlapping each other—knowing that lower levels may take precedence over the others at any time.

We can see this in the what has happened during the pandemic. Individuals may feel belonging and love with a family and friends, yet have the rug pulled out from under them as they have lost jobs and possibly homes with little relief. Will these people listen to the messages about getting a Covid-19 vaccine if they are worried about where their next meal is going to come from? Will they even hear the messages about the vaccine?

As we know, Moses and Aaron went to Pharoh and pleaded for the freedom of the Israelites.  Each time they went to see Pharoh, those visits were followed by G-d’s signs and wonders. Through Aaron, G-d orchestrated the first three plagues; through Moses the next six. It was only after the 10th, the slaying of the firstborn, did Pharoh grant the Israelites their freedom (in next week’s Parasha).

Like the Israelies, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and other  circumstances over which we have no control. Adina Roth put it this way, ”during the pandemic, many of us are trapped in a waiting game; we are waiting for this awful time to  end so that we can resume the task of living again.”

So where does this leave us? For those who can, help those who can’t. Work towards alleviating poverty, curing disease, respecting human rights. In the Jewish tradition, these are spiritual tasks no less than prayer and Torah study. Rabbi Sacks closes, “to be sure the latter are higher, but the former are prior. People can not hear G-d’s or the doctor’s messages if their spirit is broken and their labor harsh.

Shabbat Shalom



Lam, Rabbi Label for Torah.org (2010) Communication https://torah.org/torah-portion/dvartorah-5770-vaera/

Roth, Adina (2021) Parshat Vaera Room to Breathe: Seeking Agency in Narrow Places https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/parshat-vaera-room-to-breathe-seeking-agency-in-narrow-places/

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan (2016) Spirits in a Material World https://rabbisacks.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/CC-5776-Spirits-in-a-Material-World-Vaera.pdf

Summary of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs –including criticism, evolution of the model and the sources for some of the ideas from the Blackfoot Nation  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs