~ What are the patterns you see in our portion?
~ How do you understand the plagues?
~ Who are the actors in the plagues?
If we for a moment let the story become the story of a person - where everything points to what is inside a person, us, to be more exact - we can see Pharaoh as a the symbol of stubbornness, of indifference, of power that binds and blinds.
And we should notice that Pharaoh is not alone: his magicians and courtiers are with him. Eager to please Pharaoh, they propose no solutions: they show just a constant drive to show themselves - and Pharaoh, by extension - as powerful as Moshe and God. They don't revert the blood back to water, they don't send the frogs packing. They are ensnared by the same thought: power makes right.
Pharaoh is a symbol for our own lower instincts, our own small mindedness: greed, selfishness, egotism, convenience. We can see Moshe as a symbol for our own higher impulses, the mind that sees the consequences of our actions for far beyond our immediate moment and place.
As we see the story of the plagues develop in front of our eyes, the pattern of suffering and indifference; suffering of others and self-aggrandizement is clear. How can all this suffering happen? is a constant question. The answer eludes us, and eager to blame someone, we blame God. We are not so eager to blame Pharaoh, even though the text is very ambivalent about Pharaoh's heart being totally under God's control: Pharaoh's heart does things on its own six times before God making it heavy.
If we apply the symbolic matrix to the story, however, we see why we are not eager to blame Pharaoh: we are not eager to blame our own bad impulses for what happens to us. We would rather blame some other force and not take responsibility.
But here is the text promise: you can deal with Pharaoh, with your internal impulses that allow evil in your personal life. And, in a larger vision, you can deal with the forces of evil spread in the world. But just as Moshe does it with respect and integrity, so too us: the ends do not justify the means. We should be forceful, clear, and uncompromising when suffering of others is at stake. This is, in a general vision, "do not follow the ways of Egyptians" - for beyond the mere idolatry, there was idolatry of power and of the river itself. Due to those, children were murdered and families made suffer. Even the regular, innocent Egyptian, suffered - because Pharaoh would not change.
Torah, according to the rabbis, reminds us of those values: were Torah not there, basic values could still be learned through seeing the natural world.
But learning demands humility. Learning demands the awareness of our own incompleteness, the embracing of our own smallness and finitude. Without this, there is no learning, there is no transformation. That is why Pharaoh cannot learn. He cannot change. He assumes himself as all of Egypt, he is, after all, the son of the highest Egyptian god. In that sense, he is the symbol of our worse impulses. And Moshe, in this battle, is the symbol of our best impulses. Egypt, the Egyptians, are the symbol of the other things affected by our behaviors. Va'era is asking: who will you listen to? Who will you follow? When will you cross the sea, and embrace transformation?
May it be today, this very Shabbat.