Vaera: Master over Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

The Holy One said to Moses, “See! I have made you master over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your prophet.” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:1)

Good afternoon! Last week we introduced Moshe and learned that the Israelites were groaning under slavery in Egypt; this week the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh begins in earnest.

Last week Moshe was commissioned at the burning bush to go back to Egypt, but he hesitates, not sure if he has the right or standing to speak to the king or represent the Israelites. So God both commands and reassures him, thus reorienting Moshe from the belief that he had to be accepted by humans in order to speak words of prophetic justice. The narrative is seemingly interrupted by a genealogy of the heads of the clans- we’ll discuss that another time- but when it picks up again in chapter 7, God says, as in the verse above, that Moshe will be an Elohim to Pharaoh, and Aharon will be the speaker or prophet.

As you probably know, Elohim usually means “God” in the Hebrew Bible, but it can also mean human judges or authorities. (Cf. Psalm 82, for example.) So while the Jewish Publication Society, for example, translates this phrase as “placed you in the role of God to Pharaoh,” many other translators and commentators assume the more secular meaning of lord or master. The only problem is: that also raises questions, since a major theme of the story is Pharaoh refusal to recognize any authority other than himself! As king he not only initially ignores Moshe’s requests, he mocks them.

So in what sense is Moshe a “master” or “lord” over Pharaoh? As I read it, the verse is not about political but moral authority. Pharaoh may be king, but he is hardly master even over his own thoughts and impulses, whereas Moshe stands on the side of justice and prophetic ethics, giving him a steadfastness and clarity that the arrogant Pharaoh can never have. Moshe is “master” over Pharaoh because the good and right will, we believe, eventually win out over the corrupt and violent aspect of human nature. To put it another way: Pharaoh is concerned with the well-being of Pharaoh, but Moshe’s quest is grounded in a concern for the welfare of the people and the justice of God- and which do you think gives you greater mastery over self and gathers more power over the course of a long struggle?

Moshe becomes master to Pharaoh not only because he seeks freedom for his people, but because he is grounded in a wider sense of history and purpose than Pharaoh, the archetype of power-seeking and ego in human history, could even imagine. That’s the kind of vision and deep sense of connection to God, self and others that carries us through the inevitable conflicts and transitions of life; only by seeing something beyond ourselves can we find deep purpose, courage and mastery over self, which is the most important mastery of all.

Shabbat Shalom,


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