January 8, 2005
Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt is ostensibly concerned with the geopolitical conflict which confronted his nation. Judea, at the end of the Second Commonwealth (6th century BCE), was bordered by two superpowers, Egypt on its southern border and Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylonian in the north. The little nation of Judea constantly needed to juggle its allegiances with these two powers in order to maintain its sovereignty. Ezekiel’s criticism of Egypt did not focus entirely on its unreliability as Judea’s ally. In fact, his prophetic anger aimed more at Egypt’s perceived religious transgression: “Speak these words: ‘Thus said the Lord God: I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, mighty monster sprawling in your channels, who said, My Nile is my own, I made it for myself.’” (Ezekiel 29:3)
This Pharaoh’s autocratic authority characterized itself in self deification. His behavior was compulsive and extreme. He had a sense of complete control and projected this image on all around him. This attitude could only be an affront to Ezekiel’s religious sensibilities since Pharaoh’s self worhip was antithetical to Jewish belief. (See Asa Kasher’s new book Yahadut V’elilut.) For this reason if for no other, Ezekiel foresaw the demise of Egypt.
The Pharaoh of the Exodus exhibited this same compulsive autocratic behavior. The sages saw Ezekiel’s description of his “Pharaoh” as a reflection of the behavior of the earlier Pharaoh and told the following story of how Moses taught him the truth of his own mortality: “Pharaoh made of himself a god, as it is written: “My Nile is my own, I made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3) – He said: ‘I created myself.’ Immediately, God informed him that he was really flesh and blood. The Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘Since he made of himself a god, I will show him that he is really only a human being. What did he have Moses do? As soon as God told him [Moses]: ‘Go early to Pharaoh.’ Moses grabbed hold of Pharaoh. Pharaoh responded: ‘Let me be until I’ve used the bathroom and then I’ll speak with you.’ Moses said to him: ‘Is there a god who needs to care for his bodily needs?’ This is why God had Moses go to Pharaoh early in the morning, when all human beings need to care for their needs, to remind him that he, too, was only human.” (Adapted from Tanhuma Buber. Va-era 16)
This parody is a humorous reminder of a very serious message. Hubris can lead to self worship. Self worship and narcissism can not only lead to illegitimate behavior, they are idolatry.
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. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus . Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: