The Va’era portion continues the description of preparations for the Exodus. The Shemot portion was devoted to “internal” preparations – the story of Moses. And now this portion, Va’era, presents the Exodus as seen from Aaron’s perspective, who is observing the preparations “from the outside.”
In the previous portion, Shemot, God is not yet revealed to the world. He speaks there only with Moses himself. But in this portion, Va’era, the God is revealed to the outside world. This point is reflected in the very name of the portion, Va’era, which means “I (God) appeared,” i.e., I manifested to the outside world.
Moses is responsible for the internals, for receiving the Divine word from Heaven. Aaron is responsible for the externals – the “interface” – transmitting the Divine word to a wider circle. God’s revelation to Egypt, to which this Va’era portion is dedicated, is an “Aaronic,” rather than a “Mosaic,” theme.
As already noted earlier, at the national level (the people as a whole) the Almighty revealed Himself first to the Egyptians, as expressed in the Ten Plagues. God’s Revelation to the Jews occurred only much later, through the Ten Commandments, at Sinai.
The Midrash sees a connection between the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Utterances by which God created the world (Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:1). The trajectory of the world’s development according the Midrash is as follows.
The effect of the Ten Utterances of Creation, as enumerated in the first chapter of Genesis, is to conceal God’s presence (the essence of all of Creation is concealment. God does not manifest clearly in the visible world, because He wants us to earn our self-sufficiency and independence in this world).
The time of Revelation arrives when in this world, which until now has concealed God’s presence, an expression of God’s unobscured presence suddenly arises, to be realized in two separate stages. In the case of the Exodus, God first sends the Ten Plagues, whose purpose is to demolish the dominant belief system. Following that, the second stage is the giving of the Ten Commandments, which creates an entirely new belief system. Thus, God’s revelation to the Egyptians is a Revelation that destroys the antiquated, obsolete model of the universe.
Egypt was overly confident in the stability and regularity of life’s natural processes. The Nile consistently overflows, there is always a crop, all phenomena in the world are subordinated and subjugated to one another. Freedom is entirely absent, and that sense of the lack of freedom in the world is then also projected onto Egyptian society. Egypt is the “house of bondage” (20:2), the land where all are slaves: Ordinary citizens are slaves to the nobility, the nobility are slaves to Pharaoh, Pharaoh is a slave to the gods, and the gods are slaves to nature.
The Ten Plagues ravaged this static order. The result was that a “mixed multitude” of Egyptians (12:38) joined the Jewish people and left Egypt with them. This was yetziat mitzrayim – not only, as conventionally translated, the “Exodus from Egypt,” but, even more literally, the “exodus of Egypt.” Egypt will itself abandon its former ideas and adopt the Jewish worldview. This “Exodus of Egypt” was not universal; only a small part of the Egyptian people participated in it, but it too was highly essential for realizing the goals of the Exodus.
The Ten Utterances by which God created the world are an instrument of Creation, but the Ten Commandments are an instrument of Revelation. Between Creation and Revelation stands Egypt, whose people worship the laws of nature, which is purely physical, has no freedom, no individual identity, and no purpose.
The Egyptians will not allow the Jews to leave, because, in their perception, there is no such thing as freedom, and there must never be.
On a different but related note, it bears pointing out that not one of the first nine plagues was brought to its actual conclusion. Since Pharaoh was prepared to make concessions, Moses arranged to halt each of those plagues before it came to that. The reason was that the Ten Plagues were not necessary for achieving a physical victory over Pharaoh (had that been the objective, God could have brought the Jews out of Egypt simply by destroying Pharaoh).
Rather, the objective was (as the Midrash puts it) “to liberate the Jewish people from their worship of Egyptian gods.” The Jews of that generation were deeply entrenched in Egyptian culture. For their impending break with Egypt, they needed first to be convinced of the failure of the Egyptian system. Their connection with Egypt was so strong that this process of absolute disengagement from Egypt could not have been achieved with just one swift blow, however powerful. Thus, all ten plagues were needed for their gradual but cumulative effect.