Parshat Vaeira: Signs and Wonders

“When Paroh will say to you, “Provide for yourself a mofait (wonder).” And you will say to Ahron, “Take your staff and throw it before Paroh. It will become a tanin (serpent).” (Shemot 7:9)

The wonders that Moshe and Ahron performed in Egypt are referred to with two terms. These terms are ote and mofait. What is the difference between these terms?

Sforno explains that these terms have very different meanings. These meanings can be understood through better appreciating Moshe’s situation. Moshe claimed to be the messenger of a G-d. This G-d was represented as the absolute ruler of the universe. Moshe’s credibility depended upon his response to two issues. He must prove that he was the messenger of Hashem. He must also prove that Hashem is omnipotent.

The term mofait is best translated as wonder. A mofait provides evidence of the Almighty’s authority over the physical universe. Paroh denied that Hashem possessed this power. Paroh required a mofait. He could only be convinced by a wondrous act that would testify to the awesome power of the Almighty. The transformation of Ahron’s inanimate staff into a living creature served this purpose.

The term ote means sign. Bnai Yisrael accepted the existence of a Creator. The Creator rules the universe He formed. However, Moshe was required to establish that he was the messenger of Hashem. They needed an ote or sign that Moshe was Hashem’s servant. Moshe’s ability to alter nature indicated that he had been empowered by Almighty.

Sforno notes that the same act can function both as an ote and mofait. The purpose of the act will determine the term by which it is described. Therefore, the transformation of the staff before Paroh was a mofait. The same act performed in front of Bnai Yisrael was an ote.[1]

“And the magicians said to Paroh. “It is the finger of the L-rd.” And Paroh’s heart became hard and he did not listen to them as Hashem had spoken.” (Shemot 8:15)

Paroh’s magicians could not duplicate the plague of Lice. They told Paroh that this plague was the “finger of the L-rd”. Rashi seems to indicate that the magicians were attesting to the authenticity of Moshe’s claims. This plague was caused by the G-d of the Jewish people. Moshe was His agent. Hashem was intervening in nature to save His people.[2]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra disagrees with this interpretation. The magicians did not say that the plague was from Hashem. They counseled that the cause was the L-rd. Ibn Ezra explains that the Egyptians did not deny the existence of a Creator. They understood that this Creator ruled the universe through a system of natural law. The issue in dispute was the Torah concept of a Creator with a providential relationship to His people. This understanding of G-d is expressed by the Tetragrammaton – the name we pronounce as “Hashem”. The Creator fashioned a universe in which natural disasters occur. Floods, earthquakes, terrible storms destroy cities and even civilizations. The magicians did not understand such phenomenon to be providential. The magicians acknowledged that this plague was not merely an illusion or impressive trick. It was the work of the Creator. But, they claimed, it did not support the concept of Hashem.[3]

Nachmanides offers a third interpretation. The magicians accepted Moshe’s claim that the plague was from Hashem. They did not use this name. It was a foreign term to the Egyptians. Speaking among themselves, they would not refer to G-d with an unfamiliar name. However they claimed it was only the “finger” of G-d. The plague caused discomfort and some suffering. However, it was not catastrophic. They advised Paroh to be calm – to recognize the limited effect of the plague and maintain his resolve.[4]

“And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, that my nation stands upon, so that there will not be there wild beasts; so that you will know that I, Hashem, am in the midst of the land.” (Shemot 8:18)

G-d tells Paroh, through Moshe, that the upcoming plague of Wild Beasts will affect only the Egyptians. Bnai Yisrael will be protected from the infestation.

Nachmanides explains that Bnai Yisrael were also spared the suffering caused by the pervious plagues. The waters of Goshen were not affected by Blood and Frogs. There was no outbreak of Lice in Goshen. However, this aspect of these plagues was not stressed. Moshe could not point to this localization as proof of the plagues’ Divine origin. It was understandable that these plagues were localized phenomena. However, the infestation of Wild Beasts should not have been localized. There was no natural reason for the beasts to stop at the border of the Jewish province. Only providence could explain this behavior.[5]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra disagrees. He maintains that the Jews were not exempt from the effects of the previous plagues. Bnai Yisrael also suffered from lack of water and infestations of frogs and lice. These plagues did not threaten lives. Hashem did not insulate His people. However the wild beasts were an actual danger. This infestation would result in death not mere suffering. In order to protect the lives of His people, G-d shielded the Jewish people from this plague.[6]

“And Moshe said to him, “When I leave the city, I will spread my hands to Hashem. The thunder will cease. There will not be any more hail. This is so you will know that the land is Hashem’s.” (Shemot 9:29)

Our pasuk describes the conclusion of the plague of hail. Paroh beseeches Moshe to pray to Hashem. He should appeal to the Almighty to end the plague. Moshe responds that he will comply. However, he adds an important phrase. He tells Paroh that first he will leave the city. Only then, will he spread his hands to Hashem in prayer. Why did Moshe stipulate that he must first leave the city?

Rashi quotes the Midrash Michilta in response to this question. The Midrash explains that the city was permeated with idols. Moshe would not pray in this abominable environment. First, he would remove himself from this city of idolatry. Only then, would he pray to Hashem.[7]

Moshe was waging a battle against idolatry. He was asserting that Hashem is the only true G-d. The deities of Egypt were false gods. He would not pray in a place dominated by these idols. Perhaps, he feared that his prayers might be misinterpreted as appeals to the abominations of the Egyptians. He would leave the city and its idols. He would pray to Hashem only in a place free of these false gods.

The commentaries are troubled by the Midrash’s comments. This was not the first occasion on which Moshe prayed on behalf of Paroh and the Egyptians. On these other occasions, Moshe did not stipulate that he must first leave the city. Why, now, does Moshe add this requirement?

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin Zt”l – the Netziv – offers an answer to this question. His answer is based upon a previous passage. Let us consider this pasuk.

As we have explained above, Moshe was not immediately successful in winning the support of Bnai Yisrael. His initial appeal to Paroh resulted in an intensification of the bondage. Bnai Yisrael sharply criticized Moshe for this outcome. Moshe sought an explanation from Hashem. The Torah uses an interesting phrase in describing Moshe’s communion with the Almighty. The Torah says that Moshe “returned to Hashem” and sought His counsel.[8]

Netziv asserts that this phrase should be understood somewhat literally. Moshe actually went somewhere. He went to a place that he had designated for prayer and prophecy. He had established a synagogue – a Bait HaKenesset. Moshe retreated to this sacred place to commune with the Almighty.[9]

Netziv explains that this provides a partial answer to our question. Actually, each time Moshe prayed to Hashem he carefully considered his environment. He was consistently concerned with the problem of praying to Hashem in place associated with idolatry. In order to address this issue, Moshe established a special place that was sacred and devoted to the worship of the Almighty. Each time Moshe prayed or sought prophecy, he retreated to his Bait HaKenesset.

Netziv acknowledges that this insight does not completely answer our question. Why did Moshe now insist on leaving the city? Why did Moshe not follow his established practice? He should have entered his synagogue and prayed to Hashem?

Netziv explains that the answer is provided by another stipulation made by Moshe. He told Parch that his prayers would be accompanied by a physical demonstration. Moshe would spread his hands to Hashem. Netziv explains that Moshe intended to spread his hands towards the heavens. This could not be done inside a building. Moshe intended to pray outside.

Moshe could not fulfill this requirement in his Bait HaKenesset. Therefore, he was confronted with a problem. He would not pray to Hashem in a place associated with idolatry. Yet, his accustomed refuge was indoors and consequently inappropriate for the prayer he planned. Moshe solved his dilemma by leaving the city. In this manner, he was able to pray outside in a proper environment.[10]

Netziv’s insight provides an explanation for an amazing halacha. Tur explains that one should always pray in a Bait HaKenesset. He adds that the synagogue must have a minyan a quorum of ten males. Bait Yosef observes that there is an obvious implication in Tur’s formulation of this halacha. If a synagogue does not have a minyan, one is not required to pray there. Bait Yosef questions this formulation. He explains that many Sages maintain that one should pray in a Bait HaKenesset regardless of the presence of a minyan. He explains the reason for this position. A synagogue is designated for prayer.[11]

Why is this designation important? According to the comments of Netziv, we can answer this question. Prayer involves making an exclusive commitment to the service of

Hashem. Like Moshe, we live in an environment that is dominated by the expressions of other religions. It is appropriate for us to remove ourselves from our ambient surroundings when demonstrating our exclusive devotion to Hashem. The synagogue provides this opportunity. It is our refuge. It is a place completed designated for the service of the Almighty.

[1] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:9.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 8:15.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 8:15.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 8:15.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 8:18.

[6] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 8:18.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 9:29.

[8] Sefer Shemot 5:22.

[9] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Shemot 5:22.

[10] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Shemot 9:29.

[11] Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 90.