Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 18-January 24, 2009

“Pharaoh’s Delusions of Self-Creation: The Challenge of Balancing Individualism and Commitment to the Common Good”

by Dr. Joel Gereboff, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Arizona State University
AJRCA Professor of Biblical Thought

This week’s Torah portion, Va’era contains the dramatic story of the Ten Plagues (aseret hamakot) detailing the first seven of them. The term “ten plagues,” however, is a later rabbinic notion, for the biblical text itself speaks of “signs” (otot), “marvels” (moftim) and “wonders” (niflaot). These earlier characterizations make evident that the point of these events are to communicate a message, to have someone take notice. And the content of that message is quite clear in the parasha: Pharaoh, the Egyptians and the Children of Israel should discern from these ten signs that the G-d of Israel is the Lord G-d and is present in the Land of Egypt (Ex. 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:6, 18; 9:14). Professor Naomi Sternberg of DePaul University, in her comments on this parasha in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, puts this well when she observes, “Like the revelation at the burning bush and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the ten signs become a means of divine self-disclosure. They demonstrate G-d’s supreme power, proving that the Creator of the universe, controls even the most powerful of human rulers.”

The haftarah for this week, taken from the book of Ezekiel, reinforces this message in a dramatic parody of the Egyptian Pharaoh who lived at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. In this text, Ezekiel condemns the Egyptians for being unreliable allies of the Judeans in Jerusalem, and as in our Torah reading states explicitly four times (Ezek 28:26, 29:6, 16. 21) that the Egyptians need to recognize that the Lord of Israel is the true G-d. The text satirizes Pharaoh for his arrogance in 29:3 when Ezekiel is told to proclaim:

“Thus said the Lord G-d,
‘I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said,
My Nile is my own, I made it for myself.

The mocking of Pharaoh is especially poignant in the concluding phrase, “I made it for myself” for it conveys the sense of Pharaoh’s self-description as a divine being, the one who made the Nile. While Rashi interprets the Hebrew here (ani asitani) in this way, as a statement of self sufficiency, other rabbinic commentators, based on the grammatical features of the verb translate, asitani, translate the verb as “I have made myself.” Professor Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago, in his commentary in the JPS Commentary on the Haftarot neatly asserts that Ezekiel here is satirizing the “hubris of self-creation,” the overstated confidence that we have the ability to control fully our own lives.

The remarks by Robert Bellah, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Berkeley, one of the leading analysts of American religion, in a posting this week in the blogImmanent Frame, speak powerfully to the significance of President Barack Obama’s inauguration and note in particular our new President’s call for a commitment to social solidarity and the common good. As Bellah puts it, “…in my opinion…Obama is not concerned with center-left or center-right, but with making America into a country with a concern for all its citizens,” and that to get there, and to achieve “America’s Historical Promise,” we must temper our deep seeded tendencies to radical individualism with an equally powerful biblical tradition of social solidarity, social justice and commitment to the common good.” While it is good to take pride in one’s achievements and to set personal goals, we should never be self-deluded like Pharaoh to claim, “We have made ourselves.”

Many of those who this past Tuesday saw Senator Obama become the first African American to serve as President of the United States have seen this day as a “miracle,” to use the term that is often applied as well to the “ten plagues” or “ten signs.” In my own view, as President Obama took the oath of office using the same Bible as President Lincoln, I was far more struck by the overall resonance with the Torah reading for this week. Parashat Va’era, and those before and after it, chart how individual Israelite slaves were transformed into the “People of Israel” through their own agency and through their recognition that their G-d is the G-d of the whole world. May we as American Jews, along with all others who reside in these United States, under the leadership and vision of a new president, realize the potential of this historic moment and become “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”