By Rabbi Sara Rich
Last time I checked, the Torah intends to teach us that there is only one God. Though called by many names, God is one, and we are not to consider any purported deity or any person as having divine status.
And yet, in this week’s portion, Va’era, we read a verse that raises a serious red flag! To give context – in the previous chapters, Moses and Aaron receive their call to duty. They will face Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Israelite slaves. Moses has his doubts that Pharaoh will listen and even that the Israelites will follow his leadership, but God insists that Moses is capable and that Aaron will be there to assist.
Fast forward to this week’s portion, and Moses is once again having doubts. To reassure him, God says to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet” (Exod. 7:1). Moses in the role of God? Aaron as the prophet of Moses? What is going on here?!
Rashi, a medieval Torah commentator, as well as many other scholars, are very quick to explain and diminish this surprising language. He teaches that what God means is that Moses will act as “a judge and castigator, to castigate him (Pharaoh) with plagues and pains.” Regarding Aaron as Moses’ prophet, he further explains that this means “his interpreter.” According to this line of thought, we should under no terms think that Moses has a divine status, either through his likening to God or because Aaron is a prophet delivering his messages.
On the one hand, this explanation makes sense. One of the primary messages of the Exodus story is that God is the most-powerful – above the false gods worshipped by Pharaoh and the ancient Egyptians, and over Pharaoh himself, who had god-like status in his kingdom. But, the Torah is always precise with words. If God wanted to call Moses a judge, we have a word for that too, shofeit, and that is not the word used here! We have to read the choice of the word “God” as intentional.
In his book Shnei Luchot HaBrit, a work of Jewish ethics and mysticism, Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz (Poland, 1565-1630) suggests that God calls Moses “in the role of God” as an act of honor. Moses is exceedingly humble, which is largely responsible for his hesitation to confront Pharaoh. God understands this and seeks to buoy Moses’ confidence so that he has the nerve to face Pharaoh. Rabbi Horowitz writes, “God imparts some of God’s own honor to those who fear and revere God.” God does not worry that Moses will have an over-inflated sense of self and will start to regard himself as God. God does not feel threatened by using this language for someone as deserving as Moses. It is most important to God that Moses feel empowered in his role.
In Pirkei Avot Rabbi ben Zoma teaches, “Who is honored? The one who honors all people” (4:1). Our honor is not diminished when we give due honor to other people. By honoring others through sharing words of admiration, using respectful titles, giving people the chance to speak or perform a meaningful action, or giving credit for their achievements, we bring honor to ourselves as well. We should not go so far as to deceive people through flattery, but we should look for opportunities to offer praise, gratitude and support to those who are deserving of such. May we always look to give more honor than we seek to receive.
Rabbi Sara Rich is Executive Director of Hillel of Buffalo.