(When you read this week’s title, I encourage you to hear the word as said by Koko in Gilbert & Sullivan’s "The Mikado" as he is arguing with Nanki-Poo to stop him from killing himself, and realizes that herein lies the solution to his own situation as Lord High Executioner who has yet to execute anyone and may soon be forced to execute himself to satisy the bloodthirsty Emperor.)
This week, I was struck by a strong incongruity. I happened to be reviewing with one of the classes I teach the end of the Joseph saga as a setup for the ensuing investigations into Sh’mot and Va’era. We talked about how Yosef’s brothers reacted when Ya’akov died – fearful of the potential for a vengeful Yosef, they fabricate a deathbed wish of their father that they be forgiven. They go so far as to offer to become slaves to Yosef. However Yosef isn’t buying it, and responds "al tira’u, ki hatakhat El"him ani" – "Have no fear – Am I a substitute for G"d?" (JPS)
Powerful words indeed. We then had an interesting talk about the possible subtext in Yosef’s words. The illustration we came up for that seemed to fit best was a moment from "Family Guy" in which Brian and Stewie, ballooning their way across Europe, drop in on the Vatican and embarrass the Pope, who gives chase, coners them, and calls upon G"d to "smite them." when nothing happens, the Pope says "He’ s a-cookin’ something a-up." Underneath his p’shat claming of his brothers’ fears lies a warning that G"d will insure justice is done.
Yet the class and I seemed more focused on Yosef’s teleological comments that followed in the next few verses, about all that bad that happened being for ultimate good. I’ve written enough about my personal discomfort with teleological explanations, so I won’t belabor that any further.
Later that same day, I was re-reading parashat Va’era in preparation for writing this musing. It has many well worn paths, and I was feeling dis-spirited at not having yet found a new thread to follow.
Then I came to chapter 7.
"Vayomer Ad"nai el-Moshe ‘r’ei n’tattikha el*him l’far’oh….." "Ad"nai spoke to Moses, ‘See, I place you in the role of G"d to Pharaoh…."
I must have read those words many times before, but this time I was struck dumb by it. Yosef won’t allow himself to be thought of as taking G"d’s place or role. Yet here, G"d G"d’s-self plainly tells Moshe that Moshe will be as a G"d to Pharaoh. There’s something there. I can’t quite put my finger on it up…but "I’m-a cooking a-something a-up."
We can spin it all sport of different ways. Yosef was a bit prideful and so needed to remind himself of his place, perhaps. Moshe, on the other hand, was so humble, that he needed a plain direction from G"d before he could see himself in the role that G"d had chosen for him in this little drama. We can argue context and syntax. The sort of "substitution" (i.e. hatakhat) in Yosef’s situation is wholly different from Moshe being made G’d to Pharoah. (Note, by the way, the text does not say "like a G"d to Pharaoh." It’s a simple "I place you El*him to/before Pharaoh.") The JPS committee seemed to have enough theological difficulty with the Hebrew as to interpolate the "in the role of G*d." Yet the text seems clearer than that. "See, I give you/place you G*d to/for Pharaoh. Yes, there’s lots of ambiguity, but the absence of the preposition "ki" (like) seems crucial.
Of course, if we want to play Hebrew word games, we can argue about the Yosef statement and the meaning of the word "hatakhat" as to whether it means in place of, instead of, or just plain underneath. (Remember, too, we have this exact same issue with the akeidah. Was the ram used takhat – in place of, or, more literally, underneath Yitzkhak?
They say everything in Torah is the way it is purposefully. (Wearing the historical-critical hat one can easily dispute that, but we’ll put that aside for now.) I have argued many times that the Torah’s very ambiguities are purposeful – they get us to think – to not gloss over things.So I am thankful for this week’s gift of confusion as to why Yosef would not be a substitute for G*d, yet G*d makes Moshes a G*d to Pharaoh. It will give me more to think about, and I hope it will do the same for you.
I like many of the musings I’ve written for this parasha, which you can find on my website, www.durlester.com/musings.htm but as a little lagniappe I offer, below, one of my favorites, the Monty-Pythonesque "Why Tomorrow" from a few years back.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester
Random Musings before Shabbat-Va’era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Imagine a Monty Python-esque skit. We are in the "Office of Plague Revocation." An officious looking clerk sits behind the counter, radiating ennui. Three men walk in dressed respectively as Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh.
Clerk: "Can I help you?"
Moshe: "I’d l-l-l-l-l-l-like to c-c-c-c-c-cancel a pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-"
Aaron: "He’d like to cancel a plague." [indicating Moses]
Clerk: "Well, let him speak for himself then."
Aaron: "He’s got a bit of a speech impediment. I’m his spokesperson-and also his brother."
Clerk: "His brother you say? And he lets you do all the talking? Gor Blimey! Would that my own brother would shut up and let me do all the talking."
Aaron:"Yes, that’s all very nice, but we just want to cancel a plague."
Clerk: "Very good, sir. Just what kind of plague is it that you, or rather your brother wishes to cancel?"
Clerk: "Can you be more specific?"
Moshe: "I beg your pardon?"
Clerk: "Well, are they tree frogs, land frogs, river frogs? With pestilence or without pestilence?"
Moshe: "Oh, I see. I believe they are just river frogs, no special additions like pestilence and that sort of rot."
Clerk: "And are you the curser or the cursee for this plague?"
Moshe: "No curse, just a plague of frogs."
Clerk: "Yes sir, I understand. But are you the person upon whom the plague has descended, or are the one who called upon the Almighty for this plague?"
Moshe: "We didn’t exactly call upon the Almighty."
Clerk: "What do you mean, didn’t call upon the Almighty?" No one gets a plague sent against their enemies without asking the Almighty."
Moshe: [pantomimes while Aaron explains}
Aaron: "The Almighty said to us ‘Stretch out your hand over the waters and bring forth frogs.’"
Clerk: "You are joking, of course? The Almighty spoke to you? And told you to call forth a plague of frogs?"
Aaron: "Well, yes, that pretty well sums it up."
Moshe: [nods agreement]
Clerk: "And now you’d like this plague of frogs stopped?"
Clerk: "well, this is all somewhat irregular, my good man. I’m going to have to check with the home office."
[Clerk steps into a back room. Moses is behind Pharaoh making funny faces at Aaron trying to get him to laugh.]
Pharaoh: "I hate all this petty bureaucracy. It is so much easier when you yourself are a g"d, as I am."
Aaron – whispered to Moses: "See, I told you he wasn’t getting it…"
Pharaoh: "What is hold-up? I have little patience for you pesky bureaucrats."
Clerk: "Come, come now, good sir. I’m sure those pesky frogs have made you just a wee bit testy, but there’s no reason to take it out on me for just doing my job, is there sir?"
Pharaoh: "So much easier, when I am g"d."
Clerk: "Did you say you were a g"d sir? [to Moshe and Aaron] "Did he just say he was a g"d.?"
[Moshe and Aaron nod yes.]
Clerk: "Well, can’t he make the bloody frogs go away on his own then?"
Aaron: "Well, there’s some slight difficulty with that, as you see…."
Clerk: "Oh yes sir., Say no more. Say no more. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Just thinks he’s a g"d, eh? I’ve had a dozen of those today already."
[Phone buzzes and clerk answers]
Clerk: "Yes………..yes………..I’ll found out…..yes…….I see……..very good, then."
[Clerk puts down phone and grabs a scroll from under the counter.]
Clerk: "Well, do pardon me, gents, I didn’t realize you were so close with the boss. Seems the boss has taken a special interest in your case, then."
Aaron: "Well, then, can we get this plague cancelled?"
Clerk: Of course, sir. Just have your brother initial [unrolls a rather long scroll] here, here, here, here, here, here, here….and here…..and sign here."
Aaron hands scroll to Moses who signs it.
Clerk then stamps the scroll repeatedly.
Clerk: "Very good, sir, thank you."
Aaron: So we’re done here?"
Clerk: "Well, just one more question."
Aaron (and Pharaoh and Moshe): "Yes?"
Aaron: "When what?"
Clerk: "When would you like the plague stopped?"
Aaron: "Well, right away I…..[Moshe is gesturing furiously at Aaron]
Aaron, aside and annoyed, to Moshe: "What? What is it, dear brother?"
Moshe points at Pharaoh and says "Let him choose."
Aaron: "You want me to ask Pharaoh when the plague should stop?"
Moshe nods yes.
Moshe gives Aaron a dirty look, holds his staff up. [Sound effect: thunder[
Aaron: "Show off!" To Pharaoh: "OK, Pharaoh, when do you want the plague of frogs to end?"
Pharaoh: "You’re asking me?"
Pharaoh: "Well, as soon as possib…..hey, wait a minute. Is this some kind of trick question?"
Aaron: "You’re a g"d, you figure it out!"
Pharaoh: "You’re probably all expecting me to say right away. But I won’t play your little game. How about….let’s see now….hmmmm…..how’s……tomorrow?"
Clerk: "What time tomorrow, sir?"
Pharaoh: "Don’t bother me with piddly little details. Just pick a time. Anytime tomorrow will be fine."
Clerk: "Happy to oblige sir. Do come back and visit us again.
Moshe: "Thank you."
Clerk: "My pleasure sir. [whispered, to Moshe and Aaron] "Just wait until he gets a whiff of all those dead frogs tomorrow."
Voice-Announce: "And now for something completely different…"
Now, the rabbis give us a perfectly plausible explanation as to why Pharaoh would be asked when the plague should stop. Having it stop at exactly the time that Pharaoh asked for, as opposed to that which Moses decreed, is a more powerful reminder to Pharaoh of who is really in control here, and who is really a g"d.
Still, if that’s the case, why such a vague answer from Pharaoh? Why not "an hour from now" or "when the cock crows" or " when the sun, my glory, is high in the sky" ? If he wished to keep up some pretense of caring for his people, surely Pharaoh would have opted for "right now."
What can we learn here? What is this all about? Rashi gets fixated on the fact that although Pharaoh has asked for the frogs to be gone tomorrow, Moshe still goes out and prays right away for that to happen. For me, that’s not the issue. It’s why Pharaoh said "tomorrow" in the first place. Aren’t you just the least bit curious? Or do we just chalk it up to the unseen hand of G"d once again meddling directly with Pharaoh’s thoughts (although the text does nothing to so indicate.)
I’m going to let the question linger-why did Pharaoh ask for the plague of frogs to be gone by tomorrow? If you come up with a good answer, I’d love to hear it.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester