Friday, 30 January 2009

'See that evil [ra'h] should be before you.'

So says Pharaoh to Moses in one of the many confrontations between monarch and prophet that are a motif of this, and last week’s, portion. There is a Rabbinic tradition that whenever a Biblical verse commands ‘see,’ the Rabbis need to find a concrete object to which gaze is being directed. While ‘see’ in the Biblical sense probably functions in the same way as it does in English – ‘I see what you mean’ - the Rabbis incline towards the concrete.


Rashi suggests that Pharaoh is directing Moses’ attention towards a specific star; ‘There is a star called ra’h and Pharaoh claims, “I have learnt from my astronomers that this star is rising to meet you in the desert and it is a sign of blood and death.”’ This is Pharaoh’s prophecy and it explains why, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle, Moses pleas to save the Children of Israel by saying ‘[God you can’t wipe out the Israelites] less the Egyptians will say that God brought them out with ra’h – under the power of this star.’ (Ex 32:12). Pharaoh cannot be allowed to win out. God, the teaching suggests, performs a volte face and the verse in Exodus 32 continues by suggesting ‘God turned back the ra’h’ – flipped over the predictions of Pharaoh’s astrologers and, in place of subjugation brings jubilation.


On the one hand it is classic piece of rabbinics, tying together mentions of the same word in different Biblical verses. On the other hand this comment alludes to a profound message of the Exodus narrative. Pharaoh thinks the fate of the Children of Israel is sealed in the stars, secure and knowable (at least by astrologers). Moses, together with God and the Children of Israel, are the proof of the possibility of the new. God transcends the heavens and can transcend the fate the stars predict. The essence of slavery (in a spiritual sense) is the perspective of Pharaoh – the evil star is fated, fixed and will come to pass. The essence of freedom is a belief that no matter where one finds oneself today, tomorrow brings new possibility.


I have spent the week in Israel where the country is limbering up for a general election. All four leading parties are campaigning under different versions of the same message - ‘We are strong, we will be strong.’ All three contenders for the office of Prime Minister are offering different versions of the same message that has driven Israeli-Palestinian relations for ten years. Meanwhile Palestinians are bedding in for more of the same. It’s a mentality of slavery for both peoples. We need a prophet. We need God to turn back the stars, flipping over the predictions of the astrologers. It’s a good thing to pray for and if has happened before, it can happen again.

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