Vaera: A Prophet to Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

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

Good afternoon!

Three years ago, I wrote about the verse quoted above (see here) but I think I understand it differently now. To recap: Moshe is getting commissioned by God to confront Pharaoh and demand the liberation of Israelites. Moshe tries once, Pharaoh mocks him and increases the workload, and so Moshe goes back to God to say, OK, now what? (This is all in the chapter 5 of Exodus, the end of last week’s portion.)

In a long passage at the beginning of this week’s portion, God reassures Moshe of the Israelite’s liberation, gives him Aharon, his brother, as a spokesperson, and places him “as a master” to Pharaoh, as above. The word translated as “master” is elohim, which often means a name of God but also can mean master or lord more conventionally, i.e, a human superior officer, as it were. That’s the way many commentators understand it, and of course some scholars stress very strongly that Moshe was not literally a God to Pharaoh, as there is only one God.

The problem is that the Hebrew seems to be missing a word somewhere; translated literally it would be something like “see, I have placed you Lord to Pharaoh.” Does that mean as a lord, or as a God, or as the older Jewish Publication Society translation has it, “in God’s stead to Pharaoh?” You can see what I wrote earlier, but these days I think we have to understand the first part of the verse in the context of the last part: Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh, because Aharon will be a prophet for Moshe. Other commentators, noting that Aharon later becomes a priest and Moshe takes the prophetic role of relating God’s word, seem to read this as Moshe will be like a Lord (or lord) and Aharon will be like a prophet (not actually a prophet), but I think that’s unnecessary.

A prophet is someone who relates a vision of Divine workings in the world: perhaps calling people to account for their misdeeds, perhaps offering them great comfort in times of suffering, perhaps harshly calling out hypocrisy or oppression, perhaps calling for repentance and stressing Divine forgiveness. The key point is that a prophet speaks not his own words but God’s. Thus even if, at the beginning it’s Aharon who speaks the words, the essential idea is that human beings will stand in the place of God to the oppressor, to the tyrant, to the arrogant, to the hypocrite, to the forces of Empire and greed.

Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh because at all times we need strong voices of justice and liberation to speak in holy, God-grounded outrage when there is suffering and oppression. There have been many who stood “in God’s stead,” as it were: Moshe and Aharon, the 19th-century abolitionists, Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu. Throughout history there have been countless souls, some famous, many not, who spoke for people against corrupt power, who stood in God’s stead and spoke prophetic words against the Pharaoh of their day.

If we don’t, who will?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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