THE GOD THING
Rabbi David Walk
It wasn't only the ancient world who deified their heroes. We often refer to our sports icons (another word with religious overtones) as 'gods', and some enthusiasts seem to be praying to them at crucial moments in the big game. As a Red Sox fan, my favorite prayer is, 'Please, don't let it go through your legs!' Several colleges have their cheer leaders genuflect toward their teams. There's also a recent best seller about the movie industry that references 'The Gods of Hollywood'. And, of course, the god Mammon still has many adherents and many worship at his shrine on Wall St. So, who are we to scoff at Pharaoh's claim to deity status? Well, we are the descendants of those who cut him down to size. This discussion of 'Who is a God?' is a major theme in this week's Torah reading.
This dialogue about the identity of gods began last week. When Moshe and Aharon first approach Pharaoh to permit the Jews to go worship God (the real One) in the desert, Pharaoh's response is, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out (Exodus 5:2).' The Midrash explains that Pharaoh had his scholars bring a record of recognized gods (Can't you just imagine some government bureaucracy in charge of who gets into the book?), and 'lo and behold', God's name doesn't appear in the Official Egyptian Registry of Authorized Gods. That debate continues this week. When Moshe and Aharon rendezvous with Pharaoh 'down by the river side' to introduce the first plague (blood), they announce, 'With this (plague of blood) you will know that I am the Lord (7:17).' In other words, the first plague has a specific objective, namely to get God's name into the OER of AG. What we're witnessing is that the plagues have purpose beyond getting the Jews out of Egypt.
The plagues continue following a design. The first, fourth and seventh plagues have Moshe and Aharon meeting privately with Pharaoh at the Nile, and contain specific educational objectives. While the second, fifth and eighth plagues are announced publicly in the palace, and the third, sixth and ninth plagues appear without any prior notice. This pattern is, clearly, intentional. The other lessons for Pharaoh are, 'in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth (8:18, and the lesson seems to be that this God of Israel has power which extends into Egypt)', and 'in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth (9:14, the message is that God is the only God, all others, including you, Pharaoh, are imposters). It seems that the public warnings in the palace are to educate the other Egyptians, as well. These nine plagues are a curriculum for teaching monotheism.
But what about getting the Jews out of Egypt? Actually, that situation had already been addressed before Moshe ever visited Pharaoh. While Moshe is preparing to leave Midian for Egypt, God gives him one last set of instructions: When you go to return to Egypt, see all the signs that I have placed in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh, but I will harden his heart, and he will not send out the people. And tell Pharaoh that Israel is my first born son. So I say to you, 'Send out My son that he will worship Me, but if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to slay your firstborn son' (4:16-18). Moshe knew in advance that Pharaoh wouldn't send out the Jews until the first born of Egypt had been slain. Nine plagues for teaching; one plague for getting out of town. I think that it's because of this pedagogic plan that the rabbis divided up the Torah readings to have the first seven plagues all in one parsha. Otherwise, the casual reader might have trouble following the pattern.
All of this is great. Since the time of Avraham we love teaching the world about the existence of the one Omnipotent God. However, aren't we ignoring the prime actors in our story, namely the Jews? What message does our parsha have the Jewish slaves? Well, they are addressed in the first seven verses of the parsha. In this short section, God, through Moshe the prophet, informs the Jews that God can be called by different names when different relationships are being forged. During the period of the patriarchs the operative name for God was either Elokim or Keil Shakai (God Almighty or God who has sufficient strength), both of which connote power. It was with these names that God forged the covenant with the Jewish people by making promises of future greatness and possession of the land of Israel. The central text of this commitment is found in the Brit Bein Habetarim: You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years… And the fourth generation will return here (Genesis 15;13 & 16).
Now these promises are being fulfilled and the operative name for God is YKVK, the ineffable Tetragrammaton. This name, which means the Eternal One, will be the name our people will use throughout time to denote God's pledge of everlasting love for the people of Avraham, with whom God entrusted this covenant.
This week's Torah reading presents the enslavement of Egypt in a different light than we're used to. Every year we discuss the exodus at our Seder and emphasize the birth of our nation. The week's Torah reading reminds us that this experience was also the birth of an idea. Our redemption also educated Pharaoh, Egypt and the world of God's existence and omnipotence. We can never forget that our relationship with God must be a beacon to the world. Our persecution made us God's emissaries to spread the idea of ethical monotheism to mankind.