Is the Jewish faith tolerant of other religions? It sounds like a question in a Google search box, but it has surprising relevance to this week’s parsha, parshas Va’era. Shemos 7 begins the narrative of the Ten Plagues, the actions of which are always prefaced by Moshe and/or Aharon telling Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
The goal, of course, is that the Jewish people shall be freed from slavery, but Moshe starts small, requesting only that the Children of Israel be allowed to leave Egypt on a seemingly temporary basis to worship Hashem. Now Egypt is a polytheistic nation, and while Pharaoh actually declares at one point that he does not know Hashem, it is interesting to note that he never denies that there is a God of the Hebrews.
Long ago, however, Avraham made it clear that he recognized Hashem as the only Deity. His monotheistic faith, centered on the Creator of the World, was uncompromisable, and it was for this that an eternal covenant with his descendants was struck.
Within the Jewish faith, there are three truly abhorrent categories of behavior: murder, illicit relations, and idol worship. While these three categories of sin are also transgressions of the Seven Laws of B’nei Noach,* the basic rules expected of all the nations, Jewish law charges accountability to Jews only. All of this makes Moshe’s response to Pharaoh after the fourth plague particularly interesting. After Pharaoh offers for the Jewish people to worship locally (in Goshen), Moshe says: “It is not right to do so, for we shall offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination to the Egyptians – Behold if we do so, to offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (8:22).
Pharaoh hears their argument and agrees to Moshe’s proposal that the people will travel three days into the wilderness for their worship. Of course, as we all know, Pharaoh then changes his mind.
Without question, Moshe’s argument on why B’nei Yisrael must not stay in Goshen is a ploy to remove the people from the grasp of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The commentaries provide numerous explanations as to why Moshe mentioned the fact that B’nei Yisrael would be sacrificing sheep, which is the implication of the pasuk – that the offering of sheep, sacred to the Egyptians, would be in abomination. Most of the commentaries focus on Moshe wishing to protect B’nei Yisrael, for the fear of the Egyptians rising up and rioting against them was real. Other ideas are connected to working to make certain that the worship service to Hashem would in no way strengthen the power of the Egyptian’s priesthood.
As we must read the Torah each in our own generation to understand both our past and our present, one can perhaps see in Moshe’s response to Pharaoh’s seemingly generous offer of “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land” (8:21) a lesson about religious tolerance, or at least about general consideration. Moshe did not have any interest in preaching monotheism, in castigating the Egyptians for their idol worship, or even in preventing them from making more gods. Ultimately, the plagues are meant to leave Pharaoh acknowledging Hashem as the ultimate power, but there never appears to be any attempt to end polytheism in Egypt.
It should be noted that before entering the Promised Land, and in many other references to the Promised Land, B’nei Yisrael are specifically ordered to destroy any and all Avoda Zara, even remnants of the false worship of people no longer there. But in Egypt, there was no commandment to bring them around to monotheism, to cleanse the land of idol worship.
When Moshe tells Pharaoh, “It is not right to do so, for we shall offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination to the Egyptians,” one could say that Moshe was demonstrating remarkable sensitivity (even if it was to the advantage of B’nei Yisrael). He may deem the belief in the animal-human deities as mistaken, but he did not feel a need to prove his faith above others.
We today are surrounded by belief systems with which we may disagree on a deeply philosophic level – both belief systems religious and societal. But mocking them or attacking these beliefs, unless in actual defense of Torah and Judaism – does not benefit the Jewish people. Indeed, it can lead to danger for us. Our concern must be, first and foremost, for maintaining the sanctity of the Torah and the security of the Jewish people (both wholly and individually).
Speaking of Egyptians and their gods, it is interesting to note that our traditions speak a great deal about the sensitivity of the Egyptians to our sacrificing rams/sheep because their god Amun-re was often pictured with a ram’s head. Commentaries do not appear to discuss, however, the somewhat strange connection of the second plague to the Egyptian pantheon. The second plague was the plague of frogs, which overwhelmed the land. The Midrash says that when the Egyptians would hit the frogs, more frogs would come. Among the goddesses of ancient Egypt was Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility who was represented in the form of a frog or as a frog headed woman. This is a fascinating connection when one thinks about the fact that the Pharaoh’s excuse for enslaving the Israelites was that perhaps they would multiply and join an enemy army against them. Add to that the Midrash that in Egypt each Jewish woman gave birth to sextuplets, thus truly multiplying, and one could see a Divine “response” to Pharaoh’s attempt to interfere with the growth of the Jewish people through a plague wrought through the goddess of fertility.
(On the other hand, if you are one who shares the opinion of the commentator Sforno that tzfardeia were actually crocodiles, then this leads you to Sobek, the crocodile headed god of fertility and military prowess, so not much different)
*For more on the Seven Mitzvot of B’nei Noach: http://www.jewishtreats.org/2019/11/the-seven-mitzvot.html
Last year’s Personal Parsha Post, “Tricks of the Mind that Harden the Heart,” can can be read here: http://cthedawn.blogspot.com/2019/01/tricks-of-mind-that-harden-heart-vaera.html