VA’ERA (Exodus, 6:2-9:35) — “Let the Pharaoh GO!”

The Pharaoh was a man to be reckoned with.  The leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he was treated by his people like a god.  He was surrounded by wealth and opulence in this world, and when he died they filled his pyramid with goodies for him to enjoy in the next world. 

The Pharaoh was an absolute monarch who ruled with an iron hand.  No one would dare to challenge the authority of this man-god. 

Well, almost no one. 

At the end of last week’s Torah Portion, two Hebrews penetrated Egyptian security and showed up in the palace: 

Moses and Aaron came and said to the Pharaoh, “So said the G-d of Israel, ‘Let My People go so that they may celebrate for Me in the desert.’” 

Pharaoh replied, “Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d, nor will I let Israel go!”  (Exodus, 5:1-2) 

In a sense, Pharaoh’s point was well-taken.  After all, in Egyptian society, the Pharaoh himself was a god.  “G-d of Israel?”   Never heard of Him!  He’s not a member of MY country club!  He’s no colleague of mine!” 

Pharaoh didn’t like the idea of Moses, and Aaron spreading their fables about some “other G-d” taking them out of Egypt.  The last thing the Egyptian economy needed was to have their slaves distracted by dreams of independence.  He dismissed Moses and Aaron and immediately went about ordering the slaves to work even harder.

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Pharaoh needed some more convincing.  Moses and Aaron appeared a second time in the palace.  Aaron threw his staff on the ground and it miraculously turned into a snake.  Pharaoh was unimpressed.  His magicians duplicated the “trick.”  (See “Abracadabra = MC2”) Aaron’s snake turned back into a stick and then swallowed the other sticks. 

Pharaoh the man-god was not convinced.  Why not?  Moses proceeded to bring nine Plagues against Egypt, almost destroying the whole country.  Still he stubbornly refused to give in.  Why not? 

I believe that Pharaoh’s recalcitrance came, in part, from his own arrogance.  Why should Pharaoh, the “god of the Nile and of Egypt, listen to some unknown G-d?  “Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d, nor will I let Israel go!” 

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin  observed that Pharaoh was so caught up the cult of his own deification that he began to believe it himself.  People bowed down to him all day.  He was raised with the belief that he was a god.  He was so full of himself that even when faced with the miracles of the One True G-d, he viewed Him simply as an insignificant competitor.

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It was time to begin the Ten Plagues.  For Plague #1 the Nile was going to be turned to blood.  Moses was dispatched to place another call upon the king.  However, this time, a different venue was chosen: 

G-d said to Moses, Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.  Go to Pharaoh in the morning—he is going out to the water—and stand opposite him on the river bank…  (Ibid, 7: 14-15) 

Why the water?  Why didn’t Moses go back to the palace? 

Rabbi Sorotzkin points out that this was the most opportune time to confront Pharaoh and Egypt with the truth.  The Egyptians used to get up early every morning and bow down to the Nile River and pray to it for sustenance.   As well, they used to bow down to Pharaoh “who created the river,” and was the “god of Egypt and of the Nile”.  This was a most opportune time to show the Egyptians that the Nile was no god and neither was their king.  The G-d of Israel was about to turn their river-god into blood, and their king-god was powerless to stop Him.

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Pharaoh took this god thing pretty seriously.  He even went to great efforts to convince his subjects that he was super-human.  Yes, they fed him the finest foods.  He had the most comfortable royal furniture.  This man who would be a god was a very material fellow.  Every creature comfort known to man was, no doubt, available in the palace.  With one exception. 

The king’s chambers had no men’s’ room.  Part of the façade of the godliness of the Pharaoh was his pretence to have no need to get rid of bodily wastes.  “I’m a god!  Bathrooms are for mortals!” 

And so this “god”, this “superman”, spent all day, every day, resisting nature’s call, waiting to sneak down to the river for a little relief. 

Can you picture the scene? 

“Good morning, Your Majesty!”

“Oh, Moses!  Is that you again?  What are you doing here?” 

“I need to speak with you, your Majesty.  Right away.” 

“Not now, Moses.  Come see me at the palace later.” 

“No, Your Majesty.  I really need to speak with you now…” 

“Uhm, not right now, Moses.  I’m kinda busy at the moment…” 

“Oh I’ll be quick, Your Majesty.  I just have to speak with you for a couple of minutes…” 

“FOR A COUPLE OF MINUTES??!! I DON’T HAVE A COUPLE OF MINUTES!!!  PLEASE MOSES, GO AWAY!  NOW!  PLEASE!  I REALLY HAVE TO GO NOW…” 

Isn’t that pathetic?  The great god of Egypt and the Nile, sneaking out every morning and polluting that other god of Egypt. 

And so, this great king, this immortal leader of Egypt, this little man who thought he could defy the Master of the world, was forced to admit that he was, after all, just another human being who can’t travel too far from a service area. 

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz 

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 

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 From the Archives  

“Abracadabra = MC2” (2010) 

“Show me a sign!” challenged the Pharaoh … Moses was prepared. He took his staff and threw it to the floor. The staff miraculously turned into a snake. Surely, this man was for real. 

The Pharaoh laughed in his face. “Do you think you can impress me with simple magic? Anything you can do, my magicians can do better!” 

Sure enough, the Egyptian sorcerers made their own sticks into snakes. “Are you trying to sell straw in Ofarayim?!” (The Egyptian equivalent of bringing coal to Newcastle or rabbis to Monsey. 🙂 ) This was Egypt, the magic capital of the world! … 

Do we believe in magic?!… 

Read more

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THIS is your Life!” (2009) 

Slaves aren’t real people.  They are chattel; they are property.  They can be bought and sold and bartered like animals…

Pharaoh felt the same way about his Israelites.  They were his possessions, to be utilized in the efficient production of bricks for his ambitious building projects.  He was free to do with them as he wanted. He could even kill their children and use their blood for medicinal purposes.  No one was going to take away his Jews… 

Well, almost no one.  Two Levites by the names of Moses and Aaron were making trouble.  The G-d of Israel, they explained, wanted Pharaoh to release the slaves.  Pharaoh had no interest in complying. 

 “Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d, nor will I let Israel go!”  (Exodus, 5:1-2) 

How could chattel have a G-d??  These sub-human life forms known as Hebrews couldn’t have a G-d!  Why should the great Pharaoh follow the dictates of someone who represents the fictional G-d of a primitive cult? 

Pharaoh obviously needed some convincing… 

Read more

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“Let the Pharaoh GO!” (2008) 

…Pharaoh took this god thing pretty seriously.  He even went to great efforts to convince his subjects that he was super-human.  Yes, they fed him the finest foods.  He had the most comfortable royal furniture.  This man who would be a god was a very material fellow.  Every creature comfort known to man was, no doubt, available in the palace.  With one exception… 

Can you picture the scene? 

“Good morning, Your Majesty!”

“Oh, Moses!  Is that you again?  What are you doing here?” 

“I need to speak with you, your Majesty.  Right away.” 

“Not now, Moses.  Come see me at the palace later.” 

“No, Your Majesty.  I really need to speak with you now…” 

“Uhm, not right now, Moses.  I’m kinda busy at the moment…” 

“Oh I’ll be quick, Your Majesty.  I just have to speak with you for a couple of minutes…” 

“FOR A COUPLE OF MINUTES??!! I DON’T HAVE A COUPLE OF MINUTES!!!  PLEASE MOSES, GO AWAY!  NOW!  PLEASE!  … 

Read more

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 “Answering the Call of Puti” (2007) 

In listing the family lines of Moses and Aaron, the Torah tells us: 

Elazar, the son of Aaron, took one of the daughters of Putiel as a wife, and she bore to him Pinchas…  (Exodus, 6:25) 

Who was this Putiel?  It’s not at all clear.  Some commentaries say he was a well-known person in his day.  It seems from other commentaries that he didn’t exist at all; that he was a “composite.” 

The Talmud (Sotah 43a) indicates that the name “Putiel” is a reference to Joseph…As well, it is a reference to Moses’ father-in-law Jethro… 

What’s with the nicknames?  Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us the man’s name?!!… 

Read more

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“Frog Beaters” (2006) 

Sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart. 

…  Our Sages tell us that the Plague of Frogs was a compound miracle.  The swarms of frogs started out with one big frog.  The Egyptians tried to kill it.  Every time they hit a frog, it produced more frogs.  Soon the entire country was inundated with frogs. 

Now let me ask you a simple question.  If a big frog walked into your house, you might try to kill it.  That I understand.  But tell me, if every time you hit it, it produced more frogs, what would you immediately stop doing? 

If the Egyptians saw that their efforts to get rid of the frogs were backfiring, why did they keep hitting the frogs?!… 

Yes, sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart… 

Read more.  

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“Sorry, PETA, Pig’s Feet Aren’t Kosher!” (2005) 

… Moses knew where Pharaoh was coming from.  He was an Egyptian king with Egyptian values.   He despised everything Moses stood for.  The very thought of an Israelite slaughtering a lamb in service of G-d was an anathema to everything he stood for.  But he was willing to compromise.  For now.  If keeping his slaves from leaving Egypt meant tolerating Jews eating lamb chops, he was willing to make the tradeoff.  For now. 

Sounds a little like PETA… 

Read more

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“Life Begins … Today!” (2004) 

… In the middle of a discussion of Moses’ “marching orders,” the Torah makes a statement that seems a bit incongruous: 

Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron was eighty-three years old, when they spoke with the Pharaoh.  (Exodus, 7:7) 

…  These men were in their eighties.  They were old!  What were they doing running around back and forth to the palace?  Couldn’t G-d find some younger men to take on this demanding task? … 

Read more.  

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“I Opened the Door…Where’s Eliyahu??” (2002) 

He comes to visit every year.  We pour a cup of wine in his honor, and then welcome his arrival through our open door. 

I refer, of course, to Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, our annual Seder guest… Actually, at the risk of bursting a very popular balloon … Elijah does NOT join us at each Seder… 

Read more.  

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“Not So Loud, the Bread Can Hear You!” (2001) 

…Imagine the scene.  The Shabbos table is set.  Everyone is hungry, and waiting to say Kiddush and begin the meal.  Dad lifts the cup to say Kiddush… then he sees it…the Challah cover is missing. Dad gets annoyed: “Of all the…what’s the matter with you?!!” he bellows.  “Can’t you remember a simple thing like a Challah cover?!!!!!”… 

Read more.  

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 2, 2008 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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