Sunday, December 22, 2013

God vs. Pharaoh: Clash of the Titans? A Tribal Deity Reaches Out of Heaven and Into Human History, Only to Encounter a Monomanical Monarch

            Judaism teaches that God is not only the creator of the universe, but is also involved in our daily lives, in the form of Hashgacha P’rateet/Divine Providence. God plans every event that occurs to us (with the exception, I believe, of great tragedies), even though we retain our free will. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) teaches that every blade of grass in the field, every leaf on the trees, has its own guardian angel standing behind it and urging it, “Grow! Flourish!” How much more so is God present in our own lives. It all goes back to God’s appearsances in the Exodus story, as a Power active in human history. Here, God utters the famous “four statements of liberation,” showing how God will go about freeing the Israelites from Egypt: “I will take you out of Egypt; I will save you from Pharaoh; I will redeem you from slavery, and I will take you to be My people.”
            Seen in this light, the struggle between God and Pharaoh (who was regarded by his people as divine) becomes an epic battle between gods—on the one hand, a cruel, self-centered, xenophobic tyrant; on the other, the God who not only created heaven and earth, but is deeply involved in their fate. It is no accident that Moses’s first meeting with Pharaoh is by the Nile, Egypt’s chief goddess, benefactor, and source of life—supposedly, the god-monarch was in the habit of visiting the river early in the morning to perform his physical needs, and had to do so long before any of his duped subjects arose to greet the day: a god never needs to go to the bathroom, you see.
When Pharaoh refuses to recognize the Israelite God as genuine, and demands that Moses display his credentials as a legitimate prophet, God commands Moses to start out small, in a way which the Egyptians can comprehend: He transforms Moses’s shepherd’s crook into a serpent, a trick easily matched by Pharaoh’s sorcerers, until Moses’s staff swallows theirs, a conjuror’s trick, but symbolic of the drama to follow—and, perhaps, a distant echo of a previous Pharaoh’s dream, of seven lean cows devouring seven fat ones.
The first seven plagues follow, all of which can be explained as ordinary natural events. What makes them miracles is their timing, designed to show how God controls all heaven and earth, with Moses as His prophet and catalyst. Plague follows plague in a ghastly procession, inflicting pain and suffering on the Egyptians, but Pharaoh will not yield. Thinking of himself as an immortal god-king, he is too entangled in his own pride and arrogance to set the Israelites free and restore the welfare of his subjects.
            Why does this parsha sound so much like Pesach/Passover in January? It is a promise which God makes to us in the dead of winter (obviously, the Torah was not written in Florida, with its mono-seasonality), telling us that spring will eventually come. In the meantime, God challenges us to find holiness and spirituality in our daily lives and activities: let nothing we do, no deed we perform in this world, be devoid of God’s spirit. There must be some spiritual element in every one of our activities, every one of our human interactions. Through serving God and carrying out God’s plans on earth, we become most human and humane.