January 21, 2012 | 26 Tevet 5772 | Exodus 6:2-9:35
When I was a small child, my brother and I had a poster hanging on our door from the original 1977 film Star Wars. I used to gaze at this artwork for hours envisioning the cinematic wonder that was George Lucas’s creation. Woven into the complexity of the script was a simplicity that helped pull out the central meaning of this film - the struggle between good and evil, between the dark side and the light. To help differentiate between these two opposing forces Mr. Lucas brilliantly identified the characters in the simplest ways. The good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. Although life doesn’t present itself with such clean and unadulterated lines, this simplicity challenges us to break down epic stories into their most basic parts. Following this method of simplicity, it behooves us to look at our biblical characters in such simple and uncomplicated clothing. However, this is easier said than done.
This week, we read about the plagues that befall Egypt due to the Egyptian’s stubborn leader Pharaoh and his unwillingness to release the Jews from bondage. Unfortunately, the judgment against Pharoah and the Egyptians, as manifested in the ten plagues, is not so simple, not so black and white. God’s wrath, befalling the Egyptians, is complicated by the fact that the text informs us that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. When one considers the lack of justice of such judgment against a person without free will to act differently, it complicates the story; it is no longer black and white. In trying to see that basic contrast within the story, our Haftara helps us to see the black and white.
Later in the book of Numbers, the Torah identifies the character of Moses:
Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Numbers 12:3).
In contrast, our scriptures don’t tell us much about Pharaoh’s character. We can assume that he was paranoid, viewing the Hebrews as a threat because of their population growth. We can assume him cruel because of his treatment of the people and his despicable decrees against the Israelites. Everything we know is derived from his actions. The Torah seems to resist making a direct character analysis of Pharaoh, as was furnished for Moses in the Book of Numbers. The Prophet Ezekiel helps us to color in the picture. In the Haftara for Parshat Va-era the prophet writes:
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 (Asitini). (Ezekiel 29:3)
Although the prophet is speaking about the pharaoh living in his own time, our sages, when assigning this Haftara to twin with our Torah portion, are clearly making a comparison between the pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time and the pharaoh vilified in the Exodus story. As expressed by the prophet, the words of pharaoh speak for themselves – I, Pharaoh, made the Nile River for myself. What chutzpah! The arrogance to not only claim that he can create something like a river but to take sole ownership of it, claiming that it was created for himself. Is it any wonder why God choose to strike the Nile River with the plague of blood as the first of the ten plagues?
Even more indicting than the translation is the original Hebrew although most editions of the English bible translate Asitini as, “I made it for myself.” It can be argued that a better translation is, “I made myself.” This is the insight into the character of Pharaoh that stands in contrast to Moses. Whereas our story’s hero is the most humble of men, clearly Pharaoh is the most arrogant. For our tradition, this is where all the problems began - not with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart but with the solidification of his ego. In trying to understand the simplistic and baseline meaning of our parsha’s struggle, we find that it comes down to a battle between humility and superiority. When I try to draw meaning from this week’s parsha, I now know which colors to use.