Tuesday, 24 Dec 2013

Written by Zahavit Shalev

There’s plenty of action in this portion which contains six of the ten plagues. But the detail in which I take childish pleasure is a midrash that Rashi mentions just before the plagues start.
Moses has already turned Aaron’s rod into a snake, as God told him to. But the Egyptian magicians have been able to perform the same trick. Although Moses then goes one better and has his stick swallow the magicians’ sticks, Pharaoh remains unimpressed.
So God tells Moses to go early in the morning to the Nile to confront Pharaoh and explain what will happen if he does not let the Israelite slaves leave.
What is Pharaoh doing at the Nile at this time, asks the midrash? Going to the toilet, it answers. Since Pharaoh claimed to be a god (this was the way with all Pharaohs not just this particular one) he could not be seen to ingest or excrete anything, so he had to see to his needs in private very early each day at the Nile.
So Moses intercepts Pharaoh on his way back from the toilet, and during this encounter, God starts on the first plague. The Nile turns to blood, the fish die, and a stink sets in. However, the Egyptian magicians are able to match this trick too, and “Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this.” (7:22)
A week later, when Egypt has endured seven days without water, God has Moses again demand freedom for the Israelites slaves, warning: “For if you refuse to set free, then I will plague your country with frogs.” (7:27) Rashi notices that the verse lacks an object, and so reads it in the following way: “If you are a refuser” explaining that this form of the verb is adjectival, indicating a person who is defined by the acts they perform.
This is a timely warning, coming as it does after the very first plague. A great deal of suffering could be averted at this point if Pharaoh could avoid allowing himself to become a refuser. Much ink has been spilled trying to make sense of whether God or Pharaoh is ultimately responsible for Pharaoh’s hard heart, but we have to believe that Pharaoh has some kind of choice in the matter, that he is choosing to be a refuser.
Refusing is sometimes a good and necessary strategy, but making a career of being a refuser is not. Pharaoh’s pretense of being immortal, impervious, and unchanging has become a life-organising principle which makes even normal things like going to the toilet problematic. For Pharaoh, appearing to be superhuman is more important than serving his human subjects (let alone recognising the humanity of his slaves), or yielding to a genuinely superhuman God.
This midrash – about Pharaoh needing to sneak around to go to the toilet – gestures towards all of this with such simplicity. There are early warning signals that can tell us when things are not as they should be. They may be comically, childishly straightforward. If we could recognise them, we could save ourselves a lot of trouble.

Zahavit Shalev

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.