Va’era: Playing God

God replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” (Shemot 7:1-5)

He thought himself omnipotent,
a veritable deity:
life and death were in his hands.
He made the river run with blood,
and trampled the enslaved.
A shepherd with clear eyes strode in,
God’s words upon his stuttering lips
and Pharaoh turned his back.

Yet still the tyrant flourishes;
for the lust for total power
is a never-ending scourge.
And if a shepherd comes
to the elevated echelons:
an unpretentious stranger
who never courted glory, and
he cries out in the name of God
to set the people free,
will it take ten frightful plagues
to melt the pharaoh’s heart?

During most of history, the Egyptians regarded their pharaohs as touched by the divine, mediators between humans and gods. The king was set apart from his subjects. He was surrounded by servants and dignitaries, sat on a throne, displayed the insignia of his divine office and was untouchable to ordinary mortals. He could order his subjects put to death with no due process.
The world even in 2015 is rife with dictators, who establish and maintain one-party political systems with rigged or uncontested elections. They suppress the opposition and stifle the press and the right to free speech and dissent. Human rights violations and torture are rampant. Untold numbers are murdered under such regimes, which are spread all over the globe.
In a blogpost on Va’era, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser brings a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 8:2) in which we learn that Pharaoh was punished for claiming to be a god. Reb Jeff quotes the phrase, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh…” (Shemot 7:1) and notes, “The punishment for pretending to be a god is to be brought down by a human being whom God has designated to act as God. Poetic justice.”
Reb Jeff adds, “There is nothing that Judaism seems to despise more than human beings who believe that they can take the place of God. That is a dire warning for an age in which we constantly play God. We manipulate DNA to create new life forms. We kill people on the other side of the world by pushing buttons. ..”
He wonders who will emerge, as Moses did, to speak truth to power, and how that power will eventually be wrested from those who so abuse it.
In a commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes,
“Having enslaved the Jewish people, Pharaoh seeks to destroy their spirit by exhausting their bodies. Seeking a total control over their hearts and soul, the idolatry that Pharaoh seeks to impose comes at a very high cost indeed: His insistence that true power is ruthless, that supremacy is something to be imposed continues to rear its ugly head, continues to assault the biblical tradition and those who love it. No mere relic from antiquity, our century has more than its share of those who believed that their lofty visions could justify any cruelty they needed to inflict, in order to cement their hold on power.
The alternative, to suggest that true power must be wedded to kindness, that abiding strength is one that offers solidarity and nurturance, risks making one look weak. Now, as in the past, those whose convictions impel them to reach out to the outcast and the despised are themselves cast out with scorn. Then, as now, Pharaoh knew that cultivated ruthlessness would please the “realists” of the court and would instill fear and obedience in the hearts of the people.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that Moses had to defy the cruel and autocratic power that this Pharaoh and all other tyrants embody, with no military force to defend his people. He says, “…in seeking the liberation of the slaves, all Moses could utilize were his stirring words, and the power of an idea so pure that it has reshaped the world: “Let my people go!” Over and over, Moses repeated this incantation of freedom to the Egyptian king, confronting the Pharaoh with a witness to power that is based on the dignity of each human being and the holiness of all living things.”
He continues, “Compassion was not very persuasive in Pharaoh’s court, just as it is pretty unpersuasive in the court of public opinion. Yet compassion is at the very core of Moses’ mission: To fashion a sacred and just community in the service of God.”
When Pharaoh hardened his heart, Moses was compelled to afflict Pharaoh and his subjects with the plagues until Pharaoh finally let the people go.


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