Commentary for Va’eira

16 Jan

In this week’s parshah we meet perhaps the most out of place characters in the entire Torah: the Chartumim. Often translated as either “magicians” or “advisors,” these characters are strange because whereas later servants of foreign gods are often exposed by God’s prophets as nothing but tricksters, a basic reading of the text of our parshah seem to imply allow that the Chartumim actually do have supernatural powers with which they confront and attempt to discredit Moses and Aaron- and by extension, God. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that the text specifically talks about the Chartumim using “spells” to do what Moses and Aaron did effortlessly as proof that the Chartumim were merely creating illusions like modern magicians do (and many midrashim have been created to give examples of this), but whether or not that is the case is not a major theological issue because their power, whether supernatural or mere illusion, is shown to be completely outclassed by God’s at every turn.

 

It is, however, interesting to examine the way that the Chartumim choose to use their “powers.” After the first plague, when the Nile River and all other bodies of water in Egypt and all water drawn from them, even water already taken out of them at the time, is turned to blood, the Chartumim respond by also supposedly turning water into blood. Similarly, when the second plague comes, the Chartumim respond by seemingly producing frogs of their own. What good does that do? Now there is even less water to drink, and there are even more pesky frogs hopping around. All they have succeeded in doing is making the problem worse. Each time the Chartumim are able to replicate the plagues, it reinforces Pharaoh’s belief in his own superiority over God, giving him more reason to refuse to let the Israelites go.

 

When the third plague comes, the Chartumim also try to bring forth lice, which would once again only exacerbate the problem. Unlike the first two plagues, the Chartumim fail at imitating the miracle and declare the superiority of God’s power. By this point, though, the damage has been done, and Pharaoh is now so certain of his own superiority that he refuses to listen to even his own advisors, and refuses to let the Israelites go.

 

The final time that the Chartumim are mentioned is during the sixth plague, when the Torah notes that they were so afflicted with boils that they could not even appear to confront Moses. Interestingly, there is a seeming discrepancy in the Torah about the curability of these boils. When Moses is warning the people of the consequences of rejecting God, one of the punishments he warns them that God will send is “the boils of Egypt… of which you cannot be cured (Deut. 28:27).” In the Exodus story, though, the text (in 9:15-16) is clear that God ends the plague and cures all of the boils. There is a midrash which explains that the incurable boils mentioned in Deuteronomy were a punishment for the Chartumim alone, and unlike the rest of the Egyptians, God did not cure their boils at the end of the plague (which would also explain why the Chartumim don’t show up again).

 

The sin that Moses is warning the Israelites against in Deuteronomy is the sin of believing that you know better than God does or that you will be able to take whatever punishment God can throw at you and just walk it off because you are more powerful than God. These are transgressions born out of excessive pride and arrogance, two qualities exemplified by the Chartumim.

 

Whether they were real magicians or merely tricksters, the fact remains that the Chartumim had a position of influence, authority, and responsibility in Egypt. If they were real magicians, then they ignored their responsibility to Egypt by attempting to replicate the plagues. They wanted to prove that they were greater than God, and only took actions to make the situation worse rather than trying to reverse the plagues and make the situation better. If they had no real power, then the only purpose of their facade of being able to replicate the plagues is to save their own standing before Pharaoh, which only resulted in encouraging Pharaoh’s own arrogance, which eventually lead Egypt to ruin. Had they given Pharaoh honest counsel from the beginning, perhaps at least some of Egypt’s suffering could have been averted.

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