Tag Archives: pride

Commentary For Shemot

31 Dec

Last week’s parshah seemed to give us something of a happy ending, with Joseph and his brothers reconciled, and the Israelite family all living happily together in Egypt, with Joseph as the second most powerful person in the most powerful country in the world. This week we learn that things didn’t go so well after that, with Joseph’s contribution to Egypt’s survival being either forgotten or erased, until a newly-ascended Pharaoh decided that the Israelites were too much of a threat should they decide to rise up against Egypt, so he enslaved and oppressed them.


While the exact nature of most of the hardships placed upon the Israelites by the Egyptians is kept vague in the text (though it is later expounded on by the Rabbis of the Mishnah), the two that are specifically mentioned are the murder of male Israelite babies, and the building of two cities for Pharaoh, named Pitom and Ramses, and “harsh labor with mortar and with bricks, and with all the tasks of the field (Ex. 1:14).” As we find out towards the end of the parshah in chapter five, this included the Israelites being forced to make the very bricks they would be forced to use in the construction of Pharaoh’s projects.


Despite being an important construction material in the ancient world, the words “brick” or “bricks” (“le’veinah”/”le’veinim”) appears very few times in the Torah. Almost all of those are in this week’s parshah, with the only two that aren’t being in the story of the Tower of Babel at the beginning of Genesis 11. In that story, humanity wanted to build a tower to Heaven and make war on God. When Moses comes to Pharaoh and tells him that God says he must let the Israelites go free, Pharaoh, too, tries to go to war with God by proving his own power.


The idea of trying to go to war with God seems ridiculous to us. We are mere mortals and God is our omnipotent Creator. How could anyone think they would stand a chance?


Bricks are an artificial construction material. They are not animal products or things you find on trees or in the ground. They are things that we humans make by mixing different things together to make something new. The people of Babel wanted to use this material that they had made to build a grandiose monument to their own ability. Likewise, Pharaoh had others use these artificial materials for him to build cities for him- one of which he even named after himself or one of his ancestors. The people of Babel would look at their tower and say “look at this amazing thing we are creating. Look at how great we are!” while Pharaoh would look at his cities and say “look at what I have created! How great and powerful I am!”


And in their self-aggrandizing revelry, they forgot one extremely important fact: none of this would have been possible without God. It was God who created the raw materials from which they build their bricks, the land upon which they build their buildings, and it was God who created them themselves to have these ideas in the first place. Because they ignored God’s hand in their own works, they saw these works as purely their own creations, and by doing so, they made themselves gods in their own minds. Thus, when the time came, they foolishly believed that they could defeat God, and thus came their downfall.


There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s achievements. Humility is a virtue, but excess humility can be a bane. In our pride, though, we must remember that God is a partner in our accomplishments, for without God, none of them would be possible.


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.