Equal Before God

Moshe and Pharaoh clash over who among the Israelites will worship God in the desert, illustrating the fundamental differences between paganism and monotheism.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

This week's parashah contains one of my all-time favorite conversations, one of the occasions where two opposing world views are really beautifully, succinctly and clearly articulated.

As the parsha begins, the Egyptians have been through seven plagues, but will still not let the Israelites go. Moses now warns them of the next plague, the locust. Pharaoh's people have had it, they are ready to give in. "And the servants of Pharaoh said to him: 'Until when will this one be a stumbling block to us? Send out these people that they may worship the Lord their God. Don't you know yet that Egypt is lost?'"

Pharaoh capitulates, sends for Moses and Aaron, and says to them: "Go, and worship the Lord your God." But Pharaoh also has a question: "Who will be going?"

And now, with his response to Pharaoh, Moses lays the groundwork for universal suffrage and the French and American Revolutions: "With our young people and our old people we will go, with our sons and our daughters...we will go, for it is a holiday to God for us."

Pharaoh's response is swift: "...Not so, let the male adults go and worship the Lord, for this is what you ask." Angrily, Pharaoh brings the meeting to an end: "And he drove them out from before him." The interview is over, the deal is off, and the locusts arrive the next day.

Understanding Judaism

This short exchange between Moses and Pharaoh is crucial to an understanding of Judaism, and monotheism. Pharaoh is a pagan. For him, a religion's rituals are done by the functionaries or the leaders of the tribe. The rest of the people, the servants and subjects of the king, are dependant on the relationship between the leaders--the priests and the royalty--and the various deities they serve.

Pharaoh can see no reason for everyone to be part of the worship of the Lord. As his 'secular' world is arranged--hierarchal, authoritarian, and totalitarian--so is his religious world. It is the religious leadership--in this instance the adult males--who must go and serve the Israelite God. The people should remain behind, enslaved, passive, and hope that the priests get the rituals right, and thereby insure the blessings of their God or Gods.

Pharaoh thinks that only the adult males should go because he does not grasp the notion of freedom for all. He sees Moses and Aaron as the Jewish leadership, to whom, under pressure from their God and his plagues, he is willing to cede some authority. He can not imagine that their God wishes to relate to each and every one of the miserable people he has enslaved. He can not imagine that each of these individuals is a separate entity, standing alone before God.

Moses, on the other hand, explains the core of monotheism to Pharaoh, and to us. All of us, young and old, man and woman, must stand before God. As equals. As individuals. We all must participate in the relationship with the divine. And so, all of Israel must be allowed to go and commune with God in the desert. God, who created every one of us, has a relationship with every one of us.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.