Exodus 9/11 – Exposing Lying Leaders
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Many times, although well-intended, individuals present Torah (Bible) interpretations that are not based on anything more than their subjective views. They may cite a verse, but then they suggest a lesson that is not derived from the verse, is either obvious, over-simplistic, or infantile. And sometimes their points are often false. Listeners are unimpressed. This problem is severe. For God carefully selected each and every word in each of the Bible’s verses. If we simply offer an explanation without analysis, we fail to uncover God's intended lessons. We are merely using a verse as a springboard for our own thoughts. But this is not Torah study. This will not impress people. And Torah is all about impressing others with a deep appreciation for God's great wisdom. A true Torah lesson should make a person say “wow.” An appreciation of God starts with appreciating His written words.
“And the astrologers could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:11)
What is problematic with that statement? Think it over for a few moments...
It says the astrologers couldn't stand before Moses. But we wonder: how do boils – a malady of the skin, not bones or muscles – affect posture? Also, of what relevance are the boils on “all of Egypt?” Why mention that “all Egyptians” had boils, if the verse's message concerns only the astrologers' inability to stand? Furthermore, of what significance is the astrologers' inability to stand before Moses, as opposed to standing before Pharaoh or others? And if they truly could not stand, let them sit! But “standing before” someone has another meaning...
We are being taught many lessons here. The primary lesson is that we use the verse as the starting point, and let it teach us. We must not to start with our own unchecked thoughts and then look for some supporting verse. The posture of lying mystics adds no great wisdom to God's Torah. The real lesson must address the basic theme of the Ten plagues, as the plague of boils was delivered together with the other nine.
Standing also means to “present one’s self”…to appear before others.
The astrologers attempted to reproduce the plagues, only to expose their inabilities. When the could not reproduce the plague of lice, they hid their incapability behind the lying claim, “…it is the finger of God (Exod. 8:15).” It is significant that God records their feeble attempts. So significant, that it appears from the very few words concerning the plague of boils, that the objective of this plague was precisely to disarm their claims of superiority through astrology and magic. Torah verses are selective in their messages, not merely recounting every single historical occurrence. Our verse means to teach that boils purposefully targeted the astrologers.
“And the astrologers could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt.” This refers not to posture, but to their ability to sustain their dignity...they could not “appear” before Moses who outperformed them. They were ashamed. But why were they any more ashamed during the plague of boils? The answer is the second part of the verse: “…for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt.” Here, God hints to us...
Let the Words Talk
What might we derive from this latter half of the verse? These words appear to make a comparison. Both, the astrologers and the Egyptians possessed boils. We must now ask this: what about this comparison prevented the astrologers from appearing before Moses? Why was their “equal” status to all other Egyptians an embarrassment to them? We see the answer quite readily! It was the very equality to that of all other Egyptians that disarmed their claims to greatness. They were no better! They could not defend themselves from boils. What type of powerful astrologer allows painful blisters to afflict them over days? It is the liar who allows this to happen, since in fact, he has no more defense from boils than any other Egyptian. It was this diminution of status that was their embarrassment, and why they could not “appear” before Moses.
How God Teaches Us
A wise Rabbi said, as I have quoted numerous time, the Torah's words are carefully selected. Our verse is just one example of hundreds of thousands. With His meticulously crafted texts, God provides us with just enough information to discern a problem, and that hint being the very opening to the answer. “Its answer is by its side” is a Rabbinic statement describing this very phenomenon.
Knowledge is endless, but written words are limited. How then can God direct all generations to continuously uncover new truths? If knowledge was limited to the written word, when we concluded any text, we would have nothing more to gain. This is only true of human works. But Divinely inspired works are different. The Torah's and Rabbis' “apparent” inconsistencies, exaggerations and contradictions force the mind into the world of induction and deduction, and other forms of reasoning. Wisdom has a design. It has layers and curtains...where truths are only unveiled with the method of questioning.
We must appreciate the “Chocmas haKasuv,” the wisdom of the written words and search for God's intended teaching by listening to the words with a great deal of sensitivity and awe. “For God gives wisdom, from His lips [come] knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:6).” This verse teaches two matters: 1) to be cognizant that God is the “source” of all wisdom, and 2) that His “lips” offer an additional benefit. Lips refer to the written word – that which has been articulated. These articulations or Biblical verses can reveal great insights if we spend the necessary time considering the problems in each verse.
God's messages embedded in the Ten plagues are numerous. Clearly, the act of unveiling the astrologers' lies through boils was precise. For only with a plague that attacks the body would all others derive the lesson that one person is equal to another. This explains our previous question why boils caused the astrologers' shame, as opposed to any other plague. For it was boils alone that made a comparison between all Egyptians, exposing the astrologers as equals, and not the superiors they claimed to be. The very fact that God chose to include this comparison as the exclusive effect of this plague, indicates the very purpose of this plague.
Additionally, we must note that at no time did Pharaoh request the astrologers end Moses’ plagues. Pharaoh always asked this of Moses. The lesson: Pharaoh accepted the astrologers are limited, like all men.
But why was the demotion of astrologers so essential that a separate plague was required to address it?
Leaders: For Study, not Deification
From their inability to reproduce the plague of lice and from their silence regarding all subsequent plagues, we realize God's primary lesson is, as He said, “There is none like Me in all the land (Exod. 9:14).” God wished to educate the Egyptians away from idolatry, magic and astrology. They are all false. And He did so by showing His exclusive reign over the universe and all of its laws.
We must then ask what more was achieved when demoting the astrologers' status via boils. We already know that astrology is false, since from the plague of lice and onwards, the astrologers could not reproduce any miracle brought by Moses. What more was added in boils? The verse says the astrologers could not stand before Moses. Again, we see a comparison: the astrologers are contrasted against Moses. I believe this lesson is to force us to consider what we must value, and what we must disregard.
Although in a much higher social status than Moses, the astrologers realized their lowly state. It matters none that they were in positions of power, and that Moses and his people were slaves.
Roles must play no role.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians – as well as all other human beings – attribute more credence to a person in a higher status, simply because he or she possesses that status. A times, even the higher-ranked person dupes himself into believing he is superior. In his dream, Pharaoh saw himself standing literally “on” the Nile, the source of Egypt's fertility. He too was smitten by the fantasy of greatness.
The lesson here is to ignore reputations, and view one's actions or ideas alone. The Torah says “do not fear man (Deut. 18:20)” and “do not respect reputations (Deut. 17:20).” In all cases, human emotions of favoritism will lead to corruption, not God's truths, or justice.
Moses was unaffected by the boils that reached the astrologers. This directed the Egyptians to the realization that although in high office, a person can be a fake. It is clear from the institution of leadership, that man enjoys subjugation to a director – people want a leader. But we must be so careful and accept as a leader, only he who is guided by reason and Torah truths. We must be sensitive to this human frailty of insecurity and our desire for a father figure. We are to abandon that need, and mature into intelligent people. In no way should we agree with leaders by virtue of their office: they must pass the litmus test of reason and Torah. The leader too must not fall prey to seeking popularity, the lesson of King Saul. That must not be his objective. He must lead only with the desire to educate others towards a life of reason, Torah, and ultimately a love of God...not a love of himself. Rabbi Reuven Mann once mentioned the Talmudic portion that says, “Any leader whose subjects like him, is doing a poor job.” This means, that a true leader admonishes his followers towards truth, although he risks losing his post.
We conclude that the Torah teaches in a very subtle and deep manner. It takes time to master this style, but it will teach us great insights. We must study the verses, allowing the words to lead us, and not use them to support our whims. We learn that every plague offered deeper lessons than meets the eye. And we learn that we are not to follow the leader, but we must use reason to determine truths. Moses spoke truths, while the astrologers attested to their lies by their inability to stand before him. Don't follow the leader. Follow the truth.