By Rabbi Joshua Waxman
It’s all the magicians’ fault.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, Moses approaches God with a demand and a warning: Pharaoh must release the Israelites from bondage or else God will send plagues against the land of Egypt and its people. It’s a setup, of course: God knows that Pharaoh will refuse to heed the divine command and, in the latter stages, will even harden Pharaoh’s heart to ensure he won’t comply. The plagues will come down against Egypt, the people will be freed.
But at the beginning, when Moses first approaches Pharaoh, perhaps the battle lines had not yet been drawn and there was a way out of this predicament without suffering and loss of life. Perhaps.
Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and make their appeal. As God has predicted, Pharaoh demands a sign of their authenticity and so Aaron casts his rod to the ground where it becomes a snake. At this critical moment, the Torah tells us, “Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods” (Exodus 7:11-12).
Pharaoh is unimpressed because his magicians are seemingly able to replicate Aaron’s feat. It’s important, however, to notice that the Torah uses the word b’lateihem — translated here as “with their spells” — to specify the manner by which the magicians turn their rods into serpents. The exact meaning of the term is unclear — it appears nowhere in Torah outside of this story — and the commentators debate its valence, with Ibn Ezra understanding it as trickery or illusion.
Whatever the case, the method the magicians employ is not miraculous in the sense of Aaron’s transformation, and the text further confirms that their magic isn’t so powerful because the serpent that Aaron produces swallows all of theirs. But in any case, it’s enough: Pharaoh is convinced that Moses and Aaron represent no power beyond what his magicians possess and refuses to let the Israelites go: “Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as the Lord had said” (7:13).
The same dynamic repeats itself for the plagues of blood and frogs: The magicians either replicate or give the appearance of replicating Moses and Aaron’s feats, each time b’lateihem, with their spells. It is only with the plague of lice that the magicians are unable to copy the miracle. Acknowledging a power greater than their own trickery, they tell Pharaoh that this plague is a genuine work of God, but by now it is too late: “But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not heed them” (8:15).
It is clear from the Torah that the magicians’ replication of Moses and Aaron’s feats played a crucial part in convincing Pharaoh that things were under control and he could safely ignore God’s demands. The repeated word b’lateihem, moreover, underscores that the magicians knew the whole time that they — and, by extension, Egypt — were facing a power greater than their own.
But they were so invested in their role of assuring Pharaoh, telling him what he wanted to hear, and demonstrating their own prowess and skill that they were either unable or unwilling to acknowledge this fact. By the time they concede that the threat Moses and Aaron pose is beyond their power, it is too late because Pharaoh is already set in his ways.
Jewish wisdom emphasizes the importance advisers play in supporting both leaders and good governance through their expertise.
The esteemed Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654) notes that we pray for the welfare of the government rather than just of the king himself specifically to include his advisers because of the critical role they play in upholding the state. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) notes in his groundbreaking work of ethics “Mesillat Yesharim” that advisers can easily mislead by providing bad or self-serving advice, which he connects with the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind.
Advisers’ expertise grants them an added measure of authority, which is invaluable when they provide responsible and impartial guidance. But this is precisely why self-serving advisers can be so damaging: They can exploit the veneer of credibility that their knowledge and reputations impart to further their own ends and preserve their own positions, as is the case with Pharaoh’s magicians.
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have all seen firsthand what happens when leaders fail to heed impartial and scientifically-based advice provided by qualified experts. And we have also seen the terrible betrayal of those who misuse their titles and official roles to promote false narratives rather than advocate for facts and uphold the public interest.
While there is no question in the Torah that Pharaoh holds ultimate responsibility for his decisions, the faithless magicians who offered obsequious and self-serving advice rather than forcefully stating the truth from the beginning also share responsibility in the downfall of Egypt and the spread of the plagues.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is rabbi emeritus of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.