Frederick L. Klein

VaEra: Delusions of Power

The First Plague: Water Is Changed into Blood, James Tissot (Image courtesy of Wikipedia,

There is another story that could have been told in this week’s parashah. Moses could have gone to Pharaoh and argued on behalf of the Jewish people, and Pharaoh — recognizing their inherit dignity — could have let them go altogether. Alternatively, Pharaoh could have least allowed the people a three-day respite to worship God in the desert, what was originally requested. This magnanimous gesture would have affirmed that the people were more than mindless beasts of the field. Pharaoh could have admitted that, like every people in the ancient world, that the Hebrews were a nation with their own god.

Instead, Pharaoh denied the very existence of this god, and refused even to let them worship three days in the desert. Their request for a festival of worship was simply read as an act of laziness, and therefore the people were punished with even more work. What was the root of Pharaoh’s refusal? Megalomania. Any granting of their request would be seen as a relinquishment of his own power.

“My Nile is my own;  I made it for myself.” (Ezek. 29:3) In our haftarah, the Prophet Ezekiel imagines Pharaoh’s delusion than in fact he is a god.  The Nile, the very foundation of life for the people of Egypt, is the product of his hands.  If Pharaoh is a god, then the request of the Hebrews to worship their own god could be interpreted as an act of defiance, of insufficient loyalty.

One might ask, how does a human of flesh and blood come to such a paradoxical belief? The confusion occurs when individuals entrusted with almost unlimited power come to equate their power not with the role itself, but their personhood.  In plain language, their power ‘goes to their heads’.  It is for this reason the Jewish kings are commanded to write and carry with them the Torah, to remind them of their covenantal obligations to God and to the people.  They do not above the law but are obligated by the law.  In this sense, the design of the Jewish king is a direct response to the tyranny of Pharaoh.

In the first blow to Pharaoh’s claim to unlimited power, Moses confronts him on the banks of the Nile River.  In one reading, Pharaoh is walking publicly on the banks of the Nile to either examine its’ strength or admire its beauty. Just like a god would take pleasure in his creation, so might a Pharaoh survey the powerful Nile. Read this way, a public confrontation in which Moses transforms the mighty Nile into blood, the source of life into death, is an act of public humiliation before all the people[1]

However, in an oft-quoted midrash, there is a completely different way to read the episode.  The midrash cites the verse in Psalms, 9:21. “Rise, O Lord! Let not men have power; let the nations be judged in Your presence. Strike fear into them, O Lord.  Let the nations know they are only men.”[2] Pharaoh, who claims he is a God, also claims he is not limited by the constraints of human existence, including the need to take care of his personal matters.[3]  Pharoah rises and goes to the Nile in private at the break of dawn and is alone, so he may take care of his personal needs. Unlike the first reading, here Pharaoh is fully aware that whatever title he has been given, in some ways he is no different than the beasts of the fields.  Moses confronts him at the moment he is eliminating waste. Pharaoh asks him to wait until he is done.  Moses mocks him. “is there a deity [that I do not know about] that needs to go to the bathroom!?” Even before striking the Nile, Moses has exposed Pharaoh for the fraud he is. Even before the plagues have been accomplished, the ruse has been exposed.  In some midrashim Pharaoh says as much, admitting to Moses that in fact his power among the people hinges on the illusion that he is a God.[4]

Thus, because of Pharaoh’s megalomania and his delusional sense of self, the story that will be told is not one of Pharaoh softening his heart.  Rather it will be a narrative of domination and military victory, a saga describing plagues raining down from heaven.  If Pharaoh refused to recognize God’s power and his own limits,  God would need to demonstrate through the execution of the plagues what real power looks like.  If Pharoah saw himself as the creator of the Nile, God would now turn that source of life into death.  In the end, if Pharaoh saw himself as the adjudicator of life and death through the command to cast every male child into the Nile, now God would execute every first born.   If hearts were not to be moved, power would need to be applied… or should we say violence.

However, the clash between Pharaoh and God is not a direct confrontation, but rather through the actions of Moses and Aaron.  Paradoxically, the Torah does not simply describe their roles as servants performing the will of God.  Rather, almost as if to refute the claim that Pharaoh is a God, Moses himself is elevated to godlike status.  Already at the burning bush God informs Moses that Aaron will be his spokesperson and Moses ‘will be like a god to him’ (4;16).  Our Parashah makes the point more explicitly, stating, “Behold, I have made you a god (elohim) in the eyes of Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”  Sensing the theological tension in such a statement, many commentators, including Rashi, prefer to interpret the verse to mean that God has made Moses into a castigating judge. (Elohim in certain contexts means powers or judges.) Aaron is a prophet only in the sense of being your interpreter.  However, the natural reading is that Moses is being given powers in such a way that he is perceived as a god, with Aaron becoming his prophet.

In the next two parshiyot, not only will Moses’ status rise in the eyes of the Egyptians, but in the eyes of the Israelites themselves. Moses is seen as not completely of this world. Following the revelation at Sinai, Moses will ascend the mountain and fail to return on time.  The people in response fashion a golden calf to intercede with God.  It is clear that the calf was not to replace God, but to replace Moses.  Unlike mere mortals, Moses could speak to God face to face and live!

Hence, unlike the Haggadah, where Moses is almost completely taken out of the narrative, in the Exodus the role of Moses becomes front and center.  Moses assumes the role as the angelic agent of God, bringing forth wonders and miracles before all, and  lays bare the illusion that Pharaoh is in control of anything.  To wit, the very last thing we will hear from Pharaoh following the last plague is not simply that he begrudgingly allows them to leave to worship God. (He never allows them to leave outright.)  He also begs Moses to pray for him.  The reversal of roles has become complete; the one who thought he was a God submits himself to Moses, almost as if Moses is the source of life and death (12:32).

Given this, one must take pause. If Pharaoh acts or believes he is a God, and now Moses defeats him, what prevents Moses from making the very same theological error? Could the very power granted to Moses to wage war against Pharaoh delude Moses into thinking he in fact is a god as well? If Pharaoh deluded himself into thinking he had unlimited power, in the situation with Moses, God actually did grant him Divinelike powers. Would not the temptation be even greater to exercise these powers without limit? The midrash considers this problem:

And God spoke to Moses saying, “I am the Lord (YHVH).”  Why does God need to emphasize this?  Because he told Moses ‘behold I have made you a god to Pharaoh’, be careful to ensure that my Godliness is upon you.  I have only made you a god only vis-à-vis Pharoah… Remember that the oaths made to God override the commands of mortals (i.e. you made an oath to preserve the Torah) , and that human will must submit ultimately to the will of the Divine.[5]

In essence, the midrash emphasizes that to exercise power, especially the power of life and death, is to assume an aspect of the Divine.  The midrash hints at the temptation of power, noting that even Moses is not immune.   Given this, the exercise of this power must be coupled with the fear of God.

In the ideal world, the heart of Pharaoh could have been turned.  Perhaps some day like the prophets hope, we all will be blessed with a new heart.  Until that day however, there will be those who with incredible arrogance, allocate to themselves ultimate powers, powers reserved for the gods.  The ghosts of Pharaoh can still be seen in modern day tyrants.  Like our parashah there are times in history where battles must be fought- tyrants overthrown and terrorists defeated. The key to Moses’ success ultimately was not simply the exercise of that same power that Pharaoh had claimed for himself, but also that Moses saw himself as undeserving, and the Torah tells us that he was the humblest of men at the same time.  He felt obligated to God and God’s laws.   He did not fall into the error of confusing his own power with the ultimate source of power.

Each of us were created in the image of God, with powers to create and destroy.  The key is always to know that these are powers that are not given to us to advance our own self-interest, but to advance a kingdom ultimately based on justice, kindness and compassion.  In our technological age where we are becoming more and more Godlike in our capacities, we would do well to remember that all of us stand under the canopy of the Divine.  We need worlds more rooted in the fear of heaven.  If we ignore this message in hubris, we will expose ourselves to modern day plagues.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] See e.g. Nachamnides 14:8

[2] The meaning of the word, morah, here translated as fear, is debated.

[3] Midrash Aggadah 8:16

[4] Vaera, Siman 16

[5] Paraphrase of Bamidbar Rabbah 14:6.  See also Shemot Rabbat 8:1 and the ingenious explanation of Psalm 24, where the gates of the Temple suspect Solomon of claiming he is the ultimate king, as he commands them to open before the ‘honored king’.  Solomon clarifies that the king of which he speak is not him, but God.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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