Parashat Vaera begins with God commanding Moshe to return to Benei Yisrael, whose workload and suffering were intensified after Moshe’s initial meeting with Pharaoh, and to reassure them of their redemption. God makes several promises to Benei Yisrael in this prophecy, including, “Ve-lakachti etkhem li le-am” – “I shall take you to Me as a nation” (6:7).
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 14) draws a curious association between this promise and a verse in Sefer Bereishit (18:4) which tells of Avraham’s invitation extended to three wayfarers. Avraham offered to bring the travelers water to wash their feet – “Yukach na me’at mayim” – and the Midrash comments that in reward for this offer, which was made with the word “yukach,” God promised Avraham’s descendants, “Ve-lakachti etkhem li le-am.” As Avraham “took” water for his guests, God “took” his descendants as His cherished nation.
How might we explain the connection between these two contexts?
Possibly, the Midrash seeks to compare God’s coming to Egypt to free Benei Yisrael from slavery to somebody offering water to a weary, dirty traveler. Yechezkel (20) depicts Benei Yisrael as immersed in the “impurity” of pagan worship during the period of bondage in Egypt, a depiction that forms the basis of the famous Kabbalistic notion that Benei Yisrael fell to the “forty-ninth gate of impurity” at this time. Benei Yisrael were proverbially covered with filth, and God came to offer them water, as it were, initiating the process of spiritual cleansing so they could be worthy of building a special relationship with Him. And thus Chazal associate the promise, “I shall take you to Me as a nation” with Avraham’s offer of water to the travelers so they could bathe. God came to Benei Yisrael and offered them “water,” the opportunity and potential to “cleanse” themselves of the spiritual “filth” that had accumulated over the course of their stay in Egypt, so they could become His special nation.
It is customary in many communities to observe the six weeks during which the first six portions of Sefer Shemot are read as a period (called “Shovavim”) of special introspection and repentance, particularly for sins associated with impurity and contamination (namely, sins of a sexual nature). The connection between this process and Sefer Shemot, as many have suggested, may lie in the “cleansing” aspect of the Exodus. Yechezkel, in the aforementioned prophecy, states clearly that the people were unworthy of redemption, but God nevertheless came to extricate them from their state of impurity. Despite their “contaminated” condition, God came to assist Benei Yisrael and trigger the process whereby they could rise from the spiritual depths to which they had plummeted and become His cherished nation. God’s initiating this process assures us that even when we fall into a state of “impurity,” even if we ever find ourselves mired in sin or trapped in an undesirable spiritual condition, God’s promise of “Ve-lakachti etkhem” still applies. At all times, He offers us the “water” we need to cleanse ourselves. Even if we are ever covered in “filth,” God will not forsake us and will still be prepared to lend us a hand, so-to-speak, in our efforts to grow and improve. Just as Avraham offered water to his guests for bathing, God likewise offers us the opportunity and capability to “cleanse” ourselves, regardless of how “soiled” we become.