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    Pharaoh’s chutzpah – Va’era

    In Jewish tradition, the Pharaohs are kings who do not want to know.

    In the first chapter of Sh’mot we meet a Pharaoh who does not want to know what Joseph has done for the kingdom (Ex. 1:8). This week’s Pharaoh does not want to know God.

    Approached with the Divine message to let the Israelites go, he says, “Who is the Lord that I should obey Him? I know not the Lord!” (Ex. 5:2).

    Ten times thereafter the story announces the plagues as means of ensuring that Egypt and its ruler will know that HaShem is the Lord (Ex. 7:5, etc.); ten plagues to make Pharaoh see the hand of God and know that human kings are responsible to the Supreme King of Kings.

    This explains an otherwise puzzling verse in Psalm 81, the psalm for Thursday. In a reference to Egypt, it says, “I heard a language that I know not” (verse 6).

    First we must ask, what is the subject of the verse? Who was it that heard the language of Egypt?

    One view is that it was Joseph, who, according to Rashi, learned seventy languages whilst he was in prison. Another view is that it was the people of Israel, who heard a foreign tongue in Egypt (Psalm 114:1 calls the Egyptians “a people of strange tongue”).

    But there is another possibility: in Egypt the Israelite people heard the language of “I know not the Lord”.

    It was a shock for Israel to encounter a ruler and people that did not recognise that there was a Supreme Ruler. For when a people lacks answerability to God there is no guarantee that they will hear the cry of the downtrodden and act with compassion.

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