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Vaera 5769

Parshat Vaera
(Ezekiel 28:25-29:21)
January 24, 2009
28 Tevet 5769

Ezekiel\’s Pharaoh is not Moses\’ Pharaoh. Some 800 years separate them. Still, some of the characteristics of the station and office seem to have been similar. The position seems to have inspired arrogance and, in particular, one quality which the Biblical tradition could never abide, namely, self idolatry. Ezekiel describes \”his\” Pharaoh\’s chief foible in 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.\’\” (29:3) God could never tolerate a human being who deified himself for He was incredibly aware of what could transpire in the hands of such an individual.

The rabbinic tradition was wont to see the Bible as an organic whole. Consequently, some sages saw Ezekiel\’s description of \”his\” Pharaoh as equally applicable to Moses\’ Pharaoh. So we see this description popping up in the following anecdotal dialogue between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, despite the fact that such usage is an anachronism.

R. Hiyya ben Abba said: On the day that was Pharaoh\’s day for the reception of ambassadors, all the kings came to honor him, bringing with them gifts of crowns so that they could crown him Master of the world. They also brought with them their idols. After they had crowned Pharaoh as king, Moses and Aaron remained standing at the door of Pharaoh\’s palace. Pharaoh\’s servants approached him and announced: ‘There are two elders are at the gate.’ Pharaoh replied: ‘Let them enter.’ When they entered, he looked at them as if expecting that they wished to crown him or give him their credentials, but instead they failed to even greet him. He asked them: \’Who are you?’ They replied: \’We are the ambassadors of the Lord, blessed be He.’ \’What do you want?\’ he asked. They replied: \’Thus said the Lord, \’Let My people go.\” (Exodus 5:1) Whereupon, Pharaoh became incensed and said: \’Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?\’ (ibid. 2) Hasn\’t He the sense to know that He should have sent me a crown [today]. Instead you come to me merely bearing words? \’I do not know the Lord nor will I let Israel go.\’ (ib.) Pharaoh said to them: Stay awhile, while I check my records [to see if there is any evidence of your god.] So he went into his palace chamber and scrutinized every nation and its gods, beginning with the gods of Moab, Ammon, and Zidon. He then said to them: \’I have searched for your God\’s name in my archives and have found no record of Him.’ R. Levi said: Pharaoh was like a priest\’s slave who was an idiot. The priest had gone on a trip abroad, so the slave went to search for him in the cemetery. He asked all the people that he came across: \’Have you seen my master here [in the cemetery]?’ Whereupon the people replied: ‘Isn\’t your master a priest?’ He responded: ‘Yes.’ Whereupon they said: ‘Idiot! What would a priest be doing in a cemetery?\’ So Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh: \’Idiot, is it proper for the dead to be found among the living, or for the living to be found among the dead? Our God is a living God, so why should he be mentioned among those other gods who are dead; yes, our God is a living God and an eternal King.’ Whereupon Pharaoh asked them: \’ Is your God young or old? How old is He? How many cities has He captured? How many provinces has He conquered? How long has He been king?\’ Moses and Aaron replied: \’Our God\’s strength and might fill the universe; before the world was created, He existed and He will exist after the whole world ends. Moreover, He created you and has given you the breath of life.’ Pharaoh then said to them: \’What has your God done?\’ They replied: ‘He stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth (Isa. 51:13); His voice kindles flames of fire (Ps. 29:7), splitting mountains and shattering rocks (I Kings 19,11); His bow is of fire, His arms are flame, His spear is a torch, His shield is the clouds; His sword is lightning. He forms mountains (Amos 4:13) and hills, covers the mountains with grass, He brings down rain and dew and causes the plants to grow; He answers those about to give birth, He fashions the child in the womb of its mother and brings it forth into the light of the world, He removes kings, and sets up kings’ (Dan. 2:21). Pharaoh replied to them: ‘From the very outset you have spoken falsehood, for I am the Lord of the Universe, and I have created myself and the Nile’; as it says: My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself (Ezek. 29: 3) He then gathered all the wise men of Egypt and said to them: \’Have you heard the name of their God? \’ They replied: ‘We have heard that He is a son of the wise and a son of ancient kings.’ God then said to them: ‘You call yourselves wise, but Me only a son of the wise, as it says: \”The wisest counselors of Pharaoh are a senseless counsel; how can you say unto Pharaoh: I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient Kings?’ (Isa. 19:11). See what it says of them: \”The princes of Zoan are utter fools; \’ the wisest counselors of Pharaoh.\” (ibid.) \”And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the prudence of their prudent men shall be hidden.\” (ibid. 29:14) Pharaoh answered them: ‘I do not know who this God of yours is ‘; as it is said: \”Who is the Lord that I should pay attention to His voice?\” God then said to him: \’You wicked one! Who (mi) is the Lord?\” you say. Well, you will be punished with this word ’’Mi’’.’ The letter mem is forty and yod is ten – indicating the fifty plagues which God brought upon the Egyptians at the sea, as it says: \”Then the magicians said to Pharaoh: This is the finger of God\” (Ex. 8:15); and at the sea, what does it say: \”And Israel saw the great hand (ibid. 14:31). How many plagues did He inflict with His finger? Ten. Therefore, with the five fingers of His great hand, He smote them with fifty plagues, ten for each of the five fingers. (adapted from Shmot Rabbah 5:14)

This elaborate story makes clear the sages expectations of leadership. Great leaders must have humility. They must recognize God – someone larger than themselves, lest they be carried away by their own power and think they are larger than they really are. Otherwise, they will bring about the demise of themselves and all around them because this is the ultimate fate of all that is idolatrous.

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.

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