Posted on December 27, 2013 by Carolyn Gerecht
As Parshat Shemot closes, it’s not looking good for the Israelites.
Petitioned by Aharon and Moshe, Pharaoh not only refuses their (botched) request to free the Israelites from slavery – he also adds to their misery by demanding that they now gather the straw that they need themselves while still maintaining the same pace (Shemot 5:18, “No straw shall be given to you [anymore], but you must produce your [same] quota of bricks”). In this awful moment, even Moshe himself cries out to God, “Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people, and still, you have no delivered Your people” (Shemot 5:22-23). God, what are you doing to us?
The Israelites are losing their faith in Moshe, and Moshe is losing his faith in God. Yes, God reassures Moshe, “You shall soon see what I will do” (Shemot 6:1). But our doubts linger. Is there any hope?
We might call this phase of the Exodus story “rock bottom.”
And then, Vaera opens like a curtain. Almost suddenly, it seems, God has a different name, a different relationship with the Israelites, and an agenda to complete at last. God made a covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yosef to bring the Israelites to the land that He promised them, and the time has come to see it fulfilled. Hagia hazman. Soon, we will see God’s wonders performed before our very eyes.
But it turns out God isn’t going to be the only one “performing” in this parsha after all.
In fact, each time Aharon and Moshe approach Pharaoh and perform such wonders as turning the Nile to blood and causing frogs and lice to swarm the land, Pharaoh calls in his own magicians to replicate their deeds:
|וַיִּקְרָא, גַּם-פַּרְעֹה, לַחֲכָמִים, וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם-הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם, בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם–כֵּן. וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ, וַיִּהְיוּ לְתַנִּינִם; וַיִּבְלַע מַטֵּה-אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-מַטֹּתָם.||Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells, each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.|
|וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם, בְּלָטֵיהֶם; וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב-פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא-שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה.||But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.|
|וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים, בְּלָטֵיהֶם; וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.||But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.|
|וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים בְּלָטֵיהֶם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת-הַכִּנִּים, וְלֹא יָכֹלוּ… וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַחַרְטֻמִּם אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים הִוא…||The magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, but they could not… and the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of G0d!” …|
|וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ הַחַרְטֻמִּים, לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה–מִפְּנֵי הַשְּׁחִין: כִּי-הָיָה הַשְּׁחִין, בַּחַרְטֻמִּם וּבְכָל-מִצְרָיִם.||The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians.”|
Witnessing the plagues upon his people, Pharaoh says to himself, “Ha! No way can that be so difficult.” He certainly refuses to recognize God’s supremacy over him, and the demands of the Israelites for their freedom. But he also refuses to ask himself a difficult question about the Israelites’ enslavement in his land – is what I’m doing really right, or am I just finding some way to justify myself?
Pharaoh turns to his magicians to provide an answer that could validate himself. Your God can do that? So can my magicians! I don’t need to change anything.
The truth is that we often do this in our own lives, too. When challenges present themselves to us – freeing the Israelites, forgiving friends, examining our own ethics – we search for the answers we want to hear. Pharaoh does not want to open himself up to the possibility that the enslavement had to come to an end. Instead, he searches desperately for ways to continue to justify his behavior. He discredits the wonders and wisdom demonstrated by Aharon and Moshe before him, and grasps for some clue or sign that he doesn’t need to listen to them.
We, too, seek out “magic” that allows us to justify our most self-serving behaviors and actions. Indeed, we all have inner magicians that stoke our egos and stifle our ability to recognize what’s truly greater than ourselves.
When we snap at a friend or classmate, when we consistently put our needs over somebody else’s, when we let arrogance get the best of us – when we decide, “I’m not really wrong” – we are listening to our own magicians.
Therefore, my bracha for each of us is that we’re able to instead heed the positive influences in our lives: the ones that help us to admit to ourselves when we truly are wrong.
During the Amidah (said by some three times every day), we recite, “Ata chonen l’adam da’at u’melamed l’enosh bina…You show favor to man of knowledge, and You teach understanding to a mortal.”
May this understanding grant all of us the ability to distinguish between Moshe and the magician.