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Parshat Bo

Parshat Bo (Jeremiah 46:13-28)
January 16, 2016 / 6 Shevat 5776

The story of the exodus from Egypt found in the Torah was separated in time from Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning Egypt by over eight hundred years. One thing they share in common, though, is contempt for the treacherous and despotic behavior of Egypt’s leader, Pharaoh.

Contempt for despotic rule runs deep in the Jewish tradition. The following midrash opens with a creative reading of a Mishnah which ostensibly deals with the requisite intent (kavanah) required for praying the Amidah (the standing prayer). Using our Torah and haftarah readings to reinterpret the Mishnah, it is turned into a polemic against Roman tyranny. As we will see, this interpretation is built on the striking coincidence (or not) that Moses’ staff could be turned into a serpent and that both Egypt and its Pharaoh were symbolically represented as a serpent. In addition, Jeremiah’s prophecy described Pharaoh’s army slinking away from battle as if it were a snake: “She shall rustle away like a snake (literally: Its voice travels like a snake) as they come marching in force.” (46:22)

“’Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh. It shall become a serpent.’ (Exodus 7:9) It is taught in the Mishnah: ‘One who stands to pray [the Amidah – standing prayer], even if the king [not Jewish] should inquire of his wellbeing, he should not answer him and even if a snake should wrap itself around his ankle, he should not pause.’ [The midrash inquires:] What did the sages see to draw an analogy between a snake and the kingship? Said Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi: Since it is written: ‘Its voice travels like a snake’ (Jeremiah 46:22), just as a snake whispers and kills, so, too, the monarch whispers and kills people. A person is put in prison; the king whispers something and the person is killed. Another interpretation: What might be the association between a snake and the kingship? Just as a snake is crooked, so, too, the kingship of Pharaoh corrupts (makes crooked) its ways. This is why the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: ‘Just as a snake is crooked, so, too, Pharaoh is crooked and so when Pharaoh becomes crooked, [Moses] should say to Aaron: ‘Take your staff to thwart him’, that is to say: ‘From this (the staff) you will be afflicted.’” (Shemot Rabbah 9:3, Shinan edition p. 209)

The Mishnah quoted at above speaks of the depths of intention. This midrash, however, turns it into a warning against over involvement with authority for the reasons it makes obvious. Authority was not considered benevolent. It was something to be feared due to its capriciousness and self-interest. The Jewish tradition maintained this “healthy” fear due to very real experience. This midrash might serve as a reminder that such fear is warranted and should be abandoned only with great risk even under the most benevolent circumstances.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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