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Rabbi’s Sermon Saturday 6th January 2024




PHAROAH DID NOT KNOW GOD: PARASHAT SH’MOT


A strange dialogue happens toward the end of this week's Torah portion, in Exodus 5.  Moses and Aaron are in front of Pharaoh. They ask him, the most powerful ruler of the world, to allow the Israelites to go to the desert to worship God. The notable thing here is Pharaoh's reply: "Who is this God, and why should I listen to His voice? I don't know this God. Lo yadati לא ידעתי." (Exo 5:2).


The Egyptian religion was very regional. Each city had its temple, its priests and its deity protector.  Pharaoh himself was worshipped as a half-god. This kind of religion - the belief that he was a relative of other gods - was one of the foundations of his power.


Now these two subjects, these Israelites, have visited him to ask permission to worship their God.


Imagine this. Pharaoh takes his smartphone, goes on to his contacts list, and looks at the list of the gods that are listed and their address: this is the god of Memphis, this is the God of Thebes, this is the God of Alexandria... "uhm, no, sorry, I cannot see the God of the Israelites. He does not even have an address!" Pharaoh cannot even conceive of the Jewish God, a God that has no physical semblance - that cannot be known; God who rules over all Earth, Time and Space.


The different gods worshipped by the Egyptian Empire's populations were local divinities; each of them ruled over one city - where they had their temple.


In Pharaoh's mind and Egyptian culture, there is no such thing as a God who reigns over all the Earth!


This brings us to this week's reading, the dialogue between Moses and God, in Exodus chapter 4. It's a bizarre dialogue. In other religions, when a human being - like a prophet - receives a vision, and the Divinity manifests itself, the prophet feels inspired, emotional, empowered... Not Moses.


God speaks to him and gives him the task of leading the people out of Egypt toward Sinai... And Moses reacts in the most Jewish way possible.  He argues.


Of course, there is a pattern here, established nonetheless by Abraham, who also had the chutzpah to argue with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and to complain, as frustrated as he was, because the much-promised offspring wasn't coming.


Arguing with God is a Jewish pattern. Pharaoh finds it puzzling. Egypt was an authoritarian society; it was forbidden to question, express doubt, or argue with any kind of authority, human or religious.


But that's the thing. The monuments of the Egyptian religion are the pyramids: giant tombs built to memorialize kings and rulers. They are in the desert and, ideally, are meant to endure for ages, surrounded by silence. On the other hand, the monument of the Jewish religion is the Talmud: thousands of printed discussions surrounded by comments, debates and other discussions.


The discussion between Moses and God in Sinai - which we find in this week's reading - is striking for many reasons. Moses hesitates to take on the leadership of the Israelites: this is strange. Moses has risked his life to defend some Israelites and renounced the privileges granted by his Egyptian education: this requires a lot of courage and bravery; he does not lack determination... And yet now Moses is afraid? This is strange.


We know that the relationship of Moses with God is peculiar. A number of times in the future, Moses will argue with God, and God will strike back... fine. But here, Moses is telling God: "Go and look for someone else in my place". Moses is on the verge of giving up his mission and his whole relationship with God, fully and completely. That's not like him.


And so God performs miracles. First, he turns Moses's staff into a serpent and then back into a staff. (We could go Freudian on this, couldn’t we?) That's not enough. God inflicts leprosy on Moses' hands and then heals him immediately. That also must not be enough, since God promises Moses that He – God - can do more, like turning the water of the Nile - holy to the Egyptians -into blood, to make it impossible for the Egyptians to survive.


But even that is not enough:  Moses remains hesitant; he still says he does not want to accept the mission because, hey God, I did not tell you before, but I have this speech impediment that means I am never going to be a good speaker. As if God does not know about Moses's speech impediment already - what a poor excuse! Even the miracles do not definitively persuade Moses to accept his call.


This is strange. What's going on?


Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar ethical movement, has a profound answer to this question. In this passage, Moses is learning (from God!) that miracles are not enough. Moses will see it with his own eyes when wandering in the desert. Even the most incredible, magnificent, mighty miracles, such as the Red Sea parting and the constant appearance of manna, won't give the Israelites enduring faith. A faith based on miracles doesn't last.


The human psyche today marvels for a miracle, but by the following week, it starts doubting whether that miracle really happened. After some time, it finds the scientific, rational explanation - the kind that satisfies Mr Spock in Star Trek. Then the human mind asks for more, another miracle, further evidence of God's power. And the cycle begins anew. That's the human mind.


This is a concept foreign to the Egyptian culture. From the Biblical account, we learn of the magicians at Pharaoh's court and those miracle performers who worked at his command. The Egyptian faith, that system of beliefs on which Pharaoh's power was founded, was based on miracles. Not so, the Jewish faith.


We believe in God or look for God in the never-ending discussions of Rabbis and commentators. We connect to our Tradition via the words, the teachings, the practices (and yes, the doubts!) of the previous generations, which we try to pass on to the next generation.


Being a Jew means voicing your doubts, your questions, your skepticism, even in front of God. This is the way we ensure the survival of our faith. Being an Egyptian subject involved passively accepting the power of a demi-god who pretended to have defeated time by being embalmed and put at rest inside a pyramid for eternity. Two radically different world views.


"I don't know your God," says Pharaoh to Aaron and Moses. Our faith and identity cannot blossom under such a rule. This is, after all, what we remind ourselves of every year at the Pesach Seder: not only the physical liberation from Egyptian slavery but also the psychological, cultural, and spiritual process of liberation from cultures that celebrate servitude and death. 


The clash is inevitable.

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