Trusting the True “Elohim”

Throughout Moshe’s stint as Jewish leader, he very often questions himself. He feels Jewish insufficiency, having grown up in Pharoah’s palace away from his nation’s suffering, and he is also very sensitive about his inability to speak clearly- almost every time that Moshe expresses his doubts to G-d, he brings up the same point “ואני ערל שפתים.” At the early stage of the Exodus that is the beginning of פרשת וארא, G-d responds to Moshe’s insecurity in the same way every time: Aharon will be your speaker, he’ll do the talking for you. However, immediately before Moshe and Aharon approach Pharoah to perform their first trick (changing Moshe’s staff into a snake), G-d reacts a little differently:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, רְאֵה נְתַתִּיךָ אֱלֹהִים לְפַרְעֹה; וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֶךָ.

And Hashem said to Moshe: See- I have put you as an Elohim before Pharoah, and your brother Aharon will be your prophet. (שמות ז:א)

This contains the same basic idea that G-d had conveyed to Moshe all along- that Aharon would speak for him- but with very different wording. Instead of being told that Aharon will be Moshe’s speaker, instead he is being called Moshe’s נביא, and Moshe is being called a god. If anyone by the Almighty Himself had said this, it would be extremely problematic and heretical, yet since G-d is calling Moshe an “אלהים,” there must be some deeper meaning.

The מפרשים struggle to explain the significance of this wording:

Rav Sadia Ga’on presents a very straightforward approach. He writes, based on Unkelos’s translation of “אלהים” to “רב,” that Hashem is simply telling Moshe that he will become a master over Pharoah, something which we know to be true from our knowledge of ספר שמות. This idea also lines up with many other places in Tanach where אלהים (with a “lowercase א“) refers to human leaders or princes, such as the beginning of פרשת נח, where it is written that the “בני אלהים” took “בנות אדם” as wives- there, most believe that בני אלהים are simply the princes of the land.

Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, in his longer commentary on ספר שמות, takes a similarly straightforward approach. G-d, in trying to reassure Moshe, not only tells him that Aharon will speak for him- He also tells the Jewish leader that he will perform so many miracles and signs that, at the end of it all, Pharoah will see him as being on the same supernatural level as G-d Himself, capable of incredible miracles. This comparison was surely very reassuring for Moshe, who also may have doubted his ability to actually perform the miracles that he would have to perform shortly.

While both of the above opinions very much explain how the word “אלהים” could fit into the פסוק, neither particularly explain why G-d may have chosen to call Moshe this specific divine word. However, I believe that if we investigate other places where people are compared to אלהים, the context may give us a deeper understanding and appreciation for why it may have been used here.

The word אלהים appears a total of 681 times in תנ”ך (not including places where it is preceded by the letter ו or other prefixes). Of all of these, this G-dly word is only used to describe humans in two other places, both towards the end of ספר בראשית, and both in an almost opposite usage, where a biblical figure asks a rhetorical question: “התחת אלהים אני?” Initially, Yaakov demands this of Rachel as she complains to him about her barrenness (בראשית ל:ב), and later, Yosef uses this (almost identical) phrase as a response to his brother’s fears that he will take revenge after Yaakov’s death.

I believe that the key these פסוקים is to remember what the word אלהים represents. חז”ל famously teach that G-d interfaces with the world in two main ways- mercy, represented by His name יקוק, and judgment, through His name אלקים. G-d’s name אלקים represents His power and responsibility to judge the world- to take a person’s merits and shortcomings into consideration, make a decision if they are righteous or not, and punish them if necessary. Whenever the name אלקים is used throughout the Torah, it is where G-d is in “judgment mode,” adjudicating life and death based on merits alone.

It therefore makes sense that Yaakov would use this word about Rachel’s predicament. Rachel, in the extreme pressure that her delicate situation put on her, pushed back to Yaakov, partially blaming him for her infertility. Yaakov responds: “התחת אלהים אנכי“- am I the one who judged you with מידת הדין, and punished you? Reach out to G-d and pray to Him for salvation- ask Him to reconsider His judgment, and allow you to have children. Jumping forward to the end of פרשת ויחי, Yosef’s usage of אלהים is also understandable. The brothers were worried that Yosef would punish them for their treatment of him, but Yosef answers: “התחת אלהים אני“- am I G-d to judge you for what you’ve done and punish you? He will judge you, but I’m not going to. In both places, one of our forebears is accused of judging someone with מידת הדין, and either punishing them or planning to. However, both times the answer is the same: “התחת אלהים אני?,” only G-d can judge and punish.

With this in mind, our פסוק in וארא takes on a new light. Until now, “התחת אלהים אני” has been a rhetorical question, for of course no human being has the power or right to exert divine מידת הדין. However, for the first and last time in the history of humanity, we see that this question can actually be answered with a resounding ‘yes’. It is my belief that in שמות ז, Hashem gave Moshe more than words of reassurance- he was given מידת הדין, the ability, in a limited capacity, to function as Pharaoh’s אלהים, to judge him and punish him accordingly. With this, Moshe was finally able to approach Pharoah, continually warn him of his misdeeds, and deal out a divine punishment whenever he wouldn’t listen. Without this statement of “ראה נתתיך אלהים לפרעה,” none of the miracles that led to the Exodus could have ever happened.

While this appointment of Moshe as an אלהים over Pharoah may have been enough to start pushing the Egyptian leader to let the people go, this was only half of the battle. The Jewish People, enslaved and repressed for so long, were not ready to listen to Moshe initially (as we read in the pesukim: “ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח ומעבודה קשה“). They too needed to understand that Moshe had been made an אלהים, to see and believe the signs, before they could allow themselves to be led by him. Just as Moshe needed to accept that he was given limited divine מידת הדין before he could approach Pharoah, the Jewish People also needed to accept his “אלקות” before the Exodus could begin. As we see over the course of our סדרה, this slowly but surely began to sink in, and through Moshe’s leadership and אלקות, he was able to punish Egypt and lead us to freedom in Eretz Yisrael.

I believe that this idea has far-reaching consequences beyond the story of יציאת מצרים. This week’s Haftara is a reading taken from the middle of ספר יחזקאל, in a series of visions which speak of what will happen to different gentile nations in אחרית הימים. Like surrounding נבואות, ours speaks of the destruction that Hashem will wreak on Egypt in the future, not unlike the one that He wreaks upon them in our סדרה (which could explain why this reading is paired with פרשת וארא). However, unlike the other visions, this one also contains special מוסר that G-d directs “בן אדם” to deliver to the Jewish People.

Just before the destruction of the First Temple, Nevuchadrezar, a Babylonian general, had begun a march for Judea and Jerusalem. Though Yirmiyahu and Yishayahu, G-d instructed to Jews to not fight the Babylonians, who would happily allow them to remain in Eretz Yisrael with limited leadership in return for submission and taxes. The Jewish People, scared of the vast Babylonian military, rejected Hashem’s אלקות, instead turning to Egypt for military help, and enlisted the services of their army in order to ensure the security of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Egyptian mercenaries and armies were overpowered, and Nevuchadrezar closed in and besieged Jerusalem, eventually destroying the Temple and exiling our ancestors to Babylon.

Yechezkel reminds the Jewish People of their mistake of trusting in the Egyptians to save them from the Babylonians. Even though the Egyptians are also punished for their part in this, with their land being lost to Nevuchadrezar, the Jews are the responsible ones. What was their mistake? By giving the Egyptians military control over Judea, they were in effect signing over אלקות, judgment rights, to the Egyptians, instead of trusting in Hashem and following His instructions to make peace with the Babylonians. Since they put their lot with the Egyptian army, trusting in their judgment and security, all involved were severely punished. Yechezkel’s prophecy seems to serve as a reminder and warning to the Jewish People- never to entrust their “אלקות” in the nations of the world, but to keep faith in G-d and His instructions.

This is a very very important message for our times as well. Following the destruction of the Second Temple and our very long exile, we’ve had to put ourselves at the mercy of gentile nations for a very long time. In every generation, different enemies arise to try to wipe us out and stop our way of life, and we very often have to run away and rely on a different gentile nation to save us (the Muslims from the Crusaders, the Allied forces from the Germans, the Christians (ironically, the descendants of the Crusaders) from the Muslims, etc). With no other choice, we are forced to submit our אלקות to them, just as our ancestors wrongly did to Egypt in the time of בית ראשון, and, as we’ve seen, they cannot always be relied upon to properly defend us.

Rav Solovetchik, speaking on the topic of “דם יהודי אינו הפקר,” wrote that the מדינת ישראל, as the only Jewish sovereign nation and army in the world, naturally has the responsibility to defend the Jews worldwide from attacks and save us from enemies. Through this, Israel has been endowed with the “אלקות” to judge other nations and punish our modern-day Pharoahs, not unlike Moshe, until they stop subjugating us and let us go. The Jewish State is the only entity that can properly defeat the radical Muslims, and bring peace, because we have G-d’s might behind us.

Jews who have not yet made the move home to Israel are (whether actively or passively) deciding to leave their “אלקות” in the hands of gentile nations like the United States, Britain, and France, instead of entrusting it to G-d’s chosen defenders. This is effectively the same mistake that the Jews of the time of the First Temple made, and unfortunately, recent attacks in New York, London, and Brussels (to name a few), are only pushing home the message that these countries cannot properly defend us from our enemies, and that our trust in them is very misplaced.

The tragic attacks in Paris last week is particularly strong proof that the French government has failed the Jewish People. Even for those who have never seen any of the Pink Panther movies, the idea of an incompetent French Police force is no longer so hard to imagine nowadays. In the past eight days, emails and warnings have emerged that, had they been given due diligence, could have led to the foiling of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks– the French government has failed us and certainly does not deserve to be the defenders of French Jewry, to be entrusted with their “אלקות.”

We cannot give into calls by the French Prime Minister for Jews to stay in France, for “France would be a failure without its 10,000 Jews”– their track record for handling Anti-Semitic attacks in the past (such as the Toulouse shooting, which was never properly resolved) shows that they are already a failure; even less effective defenders than the Egyptians of the First Century CE who at least tried to defend the Jews from attack.

We must return our faith to G-d, and put our trust in His anointed defender Israel. We must ask ourselves if our gentile host nations are really “התחת אלקים,” realize that they are not, and return home to the true and faithful defenders of the Jewish People, returning to G-d’s will of קיבוץ גליות. With Hashem’s help, through the re-acceptance of proper “אלקות,” we will all merit to see the destruction of our enemies and a lasting peace for World Jewry, properly relocated home to Eretz Yisrael, with no more pain or suffering. Shabbat Shalom