Lessons in Community Organizing from Parashat VaEra

The texts discussed in this piece can be found, with translations, at the bottom.

Parashat VaEra, which we just read, teaches an insight that Torah students may need community organizers to help them understand and which community organizers would do well to recall. The previous parasha ended with Moshe demanding that Phara‘oh listen to the God of Israel and set them free. Phara‘oh shrugged off the demand (“Who is YHWH that I should heed His voice to send Israel free? I don’t know YHWH and I will not send Israel free”), Sh’mot/Exodus 5:2), called the Israelites lazy (5:8, 17), and instituted ever harsher, more draconian strictures on their slavery, leading the Israelites to chastise Moshe for making matters worse (5:21). Even though God had told Moshe that Phara‘oh would not crack easily (3:19), Moshe feels forlorn, lashing out at God (5:22-23). Seasoned organizers know the feeling well: Am I a total failure? Did I just make a bad situation worse?

Early in VaEra, God regroups with the organizers: “And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites and regarding Phara‘oh, King of Egypt, to bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt” (Sh’mot/Exodus 6:13). At first glance, God is shrugging off the failure and pressing forward with clarity as to the mission, moving Phara‘oh to release the Israelites. Readers of this verse have long puzzled over one curiosity, though: we understand why God charges Moshe and Aharon regarding Phara‘oh; he’s the target they have to move to set the Israelites free. Why, though, does God also command Moshe and Aharon regarding the Israelites, to bring them out of Egypt? Classical Rabbinic texts offer at least four responses to this question, responses which may seem mutually exclusive of each other, but which, I think, not only can but must co-exist, in ways understood by community organizers.

1. In the early midrashic work Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el (on Sh’mot 12:6; Bo, Pisha 5), Rabbi Yehudah ben Betheira explains that God was commanding the Israelites “to separate from idolatry”, having understood after the first, failing round of organizing, that many of the people found it difficult to give up the idolatry they had taken on in Egypt. They had internalized the ways of their oppressor. Freedom necessitates giving up some things, even things that have become precious, things through which the oppressed have come to understand nature, culture, and oneself. No matter how much you agitate Phara‘oh, if Phara‘oh-ism is deep within the people, freedom will be elusive. No matter how brutal the oppressor, organizing has to start with the people: God commanded Moshe and Aharon first regarding the Israelites, and then regarding Phara‘oh.

2. In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh HaShanah 3:5/58d), Rabbi Sh’muel bar Rav Yitzhak explains that God was telling the organizers to command the Israelites to free their own slaves! It’s so easy to think of Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites in binary terms, but organizers can easily understand that it must have been more complicated. Phara‘oh must have divided the Israelites, giving relative privilege to some, setting them up as buffers and middle agents, as slavers and exploiters always do. Nehama Leibowitz connects this text with a striking midrash I have discussed elsewhere (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3) that reasons that there were criminals among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons and had wealth and status and did not want to leave” (Studies in Shemot, p. 147). Some Israelites — perhaps the elder tribes of Reuven, Shim‘on, and Levi, who are singled out in the Biblical text for having preserved genealogical records and all of whom later produced insurrectionists — enslaved fellow Israelites; Moshe and Aharon had to deal with them first: “otherwise, how could they demand of Phara‘oh to release the Israelites?” (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843–1926, Meshekh Hokhma on our verse; I thank Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for bringing this text to my attention). The Israelite people was rife with idolaters and/or exploiters; such a community was not ready yet for freedom. 

Two other commentaries explain the command in a very different, more sympathetic, direction:

3. The midrash Sifrei (Bemidbar #91) explains that God commanded Moshe and Aharon to “know that [the Israelites] are recalcitrant and troublemakers”; nevertheless, their role as organizers was to take a punch, to organize the people “with the understanding that you will accept upon yourselves that they will curse you and stone you with rocks.” This text skips the content of their recalcitrance; maybe they were attached to the oppressor’s culture, maybe they were attached to the oppressor’s exploitative economy. Maybe they were just stuck. Regardless, organizers: this is going to be tough. Organizing the community will not be smooth. They will not all love you and regale you as a hero. Many of them will resent you and fight you. You enter this work knowing that that’s the work: embracing the people despite their sometimes hostile recalcitrance.

4. The somewhat later midrashic work Pesikta deRav Kahana (14:5) unpacks one example of what it means to embrace the people despite their hostility: God commanded Moshe and Aharon not to insult the people. Noticing that much later, Moshe is punished severely after berating the restless, thirsty people, derisively telling them, “Listen up, you rebels” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:10), the midrash wonders how Moshe was supposed to know better. How could God punish Moshe so severely, restricting him from entering the Promised Land, if his actions did not violate any commandment? The midrash responds that at the beginning of our parasha, at this critical, early organizing stage of regrouping and digging in, God commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding the Israelites: “Don’t call my children rebels.” God knows them. God knows that the rejection they have already shown will continue. They’re deep in it, in grief, suffering, pain, bitterness, cultural erasure, despair. That’s why this organizing campaign is critical. You are with the people; do not insult them, even when they act out.

Community organizers understand that all of these explanations co-exist. From Phara‘oh’s Egypt to myriad settings today, organizers work with the people to get free. Organizing involves agitation: Did you ever ask yourself who benefits from you worshiping the gods of your oppressors? Who taught you to do that? Are you actually powerful by exploiting those one rung below you? Don’t you have more in common with the Israelites you’re exploiting than with Phara‘oh who is using you as his tool? There is no freedom without giving something up along the way. And even in those settings of agitation, organizers know that they must be with the people and must believe in the people, no matter how slow and contentious the process may be. The Torah reminds us all, as if to say that we are all meant to be organizers: Before attacking the enemy, before organizing tactics and escalating confrontations, get with the people, get in formation, in generous, patient, confrontational agitation.

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein is a Senior Editor of Jewschool, the National Jewish Educator for Avodah, and an Educational Consultant to the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. 

Sh’mot/Exodus 6:13

And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites and regarding Phara‘oh, King of Egypt, to bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt. וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹן֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶל פַּרְעֹ֖ה מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם לְהוֹצִ֥יא אֶת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃


Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on Sh’mot 12:6 (Bo, Pisha 5)

Rabbi Yehudah ben Betheira says: It is written, “But they did not heed Moshe from shortness of breath, etc.” (Sh’mot/Exodus 6:9). But is there such a person who is given good tidings and does not rejoice? “[the man who said,] ‘A son has been born to you’ has brought him such joy”(Jeremiah 20:15)! Or whose master brings them out from bondage and they do not rejoice? In that case, why is it said, “But they did not heed Moshe from shortness of breath”? Because it was difficult in their eyes to separate from idolatry, as is said “And I said to them [in Egypt]: Cast away, every one of you, the loathsome things that have your eyes and with the with the idols of Egypt do not defile yourselves” (Ezekiel 20:7). This is what was written, “And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites” (Sh’mot/Exodus 6:13). He commanded them to separate from  idolatry. רבי יהודה בן בתירא אומר, הרי הוא אומר ולא שמעו אל משה מקוצר רוח וגו’, וכי יש לך אדם שהוא מתבשר בשורה טובה ואינו שמח? “יֻֽלַּד לְךָ֖ בֵּ֣ן זָכָ֑ר שַׂמֵּ֖חַ שִׂמְּחָֽהוּ (ירמיה כ:טו), רבו מוציאו לחירות ואינו שמח? אם כן, למה נאמר ולא שמעו אל משה? אלא שהיה קשה בעיניהם לפרוש מע”ז. שנאמר “אֹמַ֣ר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם אִ֣ישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵ֤י עֵינָיו֙ הַשְׁלִ֔יכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם אַל תִּטַּמָּ֑אוּ” (יחזקאל כ:ז). הדא הוא דכתיב, “וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹן֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל”: צום לפרוש מעבודה זרה.


Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 3:5/58d

Rabbi Sh’muel bar Rav Yitzhak said, “And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites”: About what did [God] command them? About the chapter about the freeing of servants. This parallels what Rabbi Ila said: Israel was punished only on account of the chapter about the freeing of servants. That is what is written: “[So said YHWH, God of Israel: I cut a covenant with your ancestors on the day when I took them out of the land of Egypt, out of the slave house, saying:] At the end of seven years everyone of you must send free their Hebrew brother [who has been sold to them]…” (Jeremiah 34:14). אָמַר רִבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַב יִצְחָק. וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְי אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶ‍ֽל־אַ‍ֽהֲרֹן‌֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל. עַל מַה צִיוָּם? עַל פָּרָשַׁת שִׁילּוּחַ עֲבָדִים. וְאַתְייָא כַּהִיא דְאָמַר רִבִּי אִילָא: לֹא נֶעֶנְשׁוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶלָּא עַל פָּרָשַׁת שִׁילּוּחַ עֲבָדִים. הָדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב מִקֵּ֣ץ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֡ים תְּ‍ֽשַׁלְּח֡וּ אִישׁ֩ אֶת אָחִ֨יו הָעִבְרִ֜י וגו׳.


Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar #91

“And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites…” (Sh’mot/Exodus 6:13): He said to them: Know that they are recalcitrant and troublemakers, but [your role] is with the understanding that you will accept upon yourselves that they will curse you and stone you with rocks.  וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹן֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל (שמות ו:יג): אמר להם: היו יודעים שסרבנין וטרחנין הם! אלא על מנת שתקבלו עליכם שיהו מקללים אתכם, וסוקלים אתכם באבנים!


Midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana 14:5

It is written: “And YHWH spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them regarding the Israelites…” (Sh’mot 6:13): What did [God] command them? [God] said to them, “Do not call my children rebels.” But when they provoked him at the Waters of Strife, Moshe said to them, “Listen up now, you rebels” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:10). The Holy Blessed One said to them, “With my whole being, I was commanding you, saying that you should not call my children rebels, yet you’re calling my children rebels. The enlightened one should not deal with fools, huh?” Therefore, it’s not written “Thou shall not bring” but “You should not bring” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:12) – neither you, nor your brother, nor your sister will ascend to the land of Israel. כת’ וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹן֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל (שם ו:יג), מה צום, אמר להם אל תהו קוראין לבני מורים, וכיון שהיקניטו על מי מריבה אמר להם משה שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ:י), א’ להם הקב”ה כל עצמי הייתי מצוה אתכם ואומ’ לכם אל תהו קורין לבני מורים ואתם קורין לבניי מורים, לית עסקיה דערים מהלך עם שטי, לכן לא תביא אין כת’ אלא לכן לא תביאו (שם כ:יב), לא את ולא אחוך ולא אחותך עלין לארעא דישר’.


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