The preliminaries end and the ten “plagues”1 begin in in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“and I appeared”). God asks Moses to meet Pharaoh at the river and tell him the reason for the first plague, when water will turn into blood.
And you shall say to him: “Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying: Send out my people, and they will serve me in the midbar! And hey, you have not paid attention before now.” (Exodus/Shemot 6:16)2
midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uninhabited land, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert).
Moses had asked for a leave of absence for the Israelites when he first came before the pharaoh, just as God had ordered him at the burning bush on Mount Sinai:
“And you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, appeared to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for Y-H-V-H, our god.” (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)
It seems like a small request. The pharaoh has been forcing the Israelite men to do corvée labor building brick storehouses. He could afford to grant them all one week off—three days to travel into the wilderness, perhaps one day for ritual offerings, and three days to come back. Then as soon as they returned he could put them back to work.
Why does God order Moses to make this small request, when the long-term plan is to take the Israelites out of Egypt altogether and relocate them in Canaan? Why should Moses ask for a short leave of absence, instead of for permanent emancipation?
I used to wonder if Moses’ repeated request for a week off to serve God in the wilderness is a ploy to get all the Israelites a head start on their journey to Canaan before the Egyptians realized they were not coming back and decided to pursue them. After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them only three days to get to the Reed Sea, part of the boundary of Egypt proper.3
However, God already knows that the pharaoh will repeatedly refuse to grant the Israelites a leave of absence.4 God is already planning to harden the Pharaoh’s heart and inflict the miraculous plagues on Egypt.
Therefore Moses’ request is both an excuse for Pharaoh to say no, and an expression of two things the Israelites ought to desire, according to God: serving their own god, and going into the wilderness to do it.
When Moses and his brother Aaron first come before the pharaoh they phrase the request this way:
“Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of Israel: Send out my people and let them make a festival-offering for me in the midbar.” (Exodus 5:1)
The pharaoh refuses, giving two reasons:
“Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send out Israel? I do not know Y-H-W-H, and neither will I send out Israel.” (Exodus 5:2)
“Why, Moses and Aaron, would you disturb the people from their work? Go to your [own] burdens!” (Exodus 5:4)
The pharaoh then gives the Israelites additional hours of work; they must gather the straw stubble for brickmaking while still meeting their quota for making bricks (and presumably for building the brick storehouses). His move is effective; the Israelites tell Moses and Aaron that this additional hardship is all their fault.5 But the two brothers continue to cooperate with God’s plan for eventually liberating the Israelites from Egypt.
The pharaoh ignores the first plague in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood. The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.
…and he said: “Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to Y-H-V-H.” (Exodus 8:4)
At this point the pharaoh does not mention going into the wilderness to make the offering, and Moses does not bring it up.
After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh hardens his own heart and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain anyway; he still stands firm in his two original objections to Moses’ request: that he does not recognize the god of the Israelites, and that he will not give them any time off work.
Going into the wilderness
Only after the fourth plague (arov = mixed vermin) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer—perhaps because this time God inflicts the plague only on native Egyptian houses, leaving the houses of the Israelites vermin-free.
And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: “Go! Slaughter offerings to your god, in the land.” (Exodus 8:21)
Moses refuses. He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt. His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.
“Sure, we slaughter the taboo of Egyptians in front of their eyes, and they do not stone us? Let us go for a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will slaughter animals for Y-H-V-H, our god, as [God] says to us.” (Exodus 8:22-23)
Then Pharaoh said: “I, I will send you, and you may slaughter offerings for Y-H-V-H, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away. Plead for me!” (Exodus 8:24)
After Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites any leave of absence.
During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.
What is the deeper reason why the Israelites must serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt?
Routine sacrifices to God are conducted at altars in long-term campsites in the books of Genesis through Joshua, and at temples in towns populated by Israelites in the rest of the Torah. But in situations that make it harder to reach God, the wilderness is often where the connection happens.
In Genesis, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva.6 Abraham must travel away from Beersheva to a remote hilltop in order to commit the difficult sacrifice of his son Isaac.7 Jacob wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area on the Yabbok River.8 Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, when he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says:
And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)
In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection. I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we rise toward the universal divine together—rather like the Israelites in the Torah who gather at at their communal altars. I miss prayer services when I go too long without them.
Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine spirit inside myself, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people to distract me, not even praying people or inspiring speakers; and no buildings or vehicles in sight to remind me of what else I might be doing. If I see only what we call nature, and hear only wind or water or bird songs as well as my own breathing, then I can do a different and deeper kind of prayer.
In a midbar, I am separated from my usual labors. I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve. You might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom. And a little freedom returns with me when I return to the world of people.
May we all find a wilderness when we need it.
- What we call the ten “plagues” are ten miracles that cause widespread devastation in Egypt.
- Although I usually translate the four-letter personal name of God as simply “God”, in this essay I spell it out in Roman letters because Pharaoh does not know there is a god by that name, and one of the reasons God sends Moses to Egypt and inflicts the plagues is so that all Egypt will know the name Y-H-W-H. God brings this up at least ten times. For more on the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name, see my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.
- The Reed Sea is the third place where the Israelites encamp for the night after they leave the capitol city of Ramses. The first is Sukkot, the second is Eitam (Exodus 13:20), and the third is Pi Hachirot by the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:2 and 14:9). (See also Numbers 33:3-8.) God chooses not to part the sea until after the Egyptian army arrives and is available to be drowned.
- And God said to Moses: “When you come and return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand and do them before Pharoah. But I, I will strengthen his heart and he will not send out the people.” (Exodus 4:21.)
- Exodus 5:6-21.
- Genesis 16:7-13, 21:14-19.
- Genesis 22:2.
- Genesis 32:23-29.