Fear and Power
The final blow is about to fall. The tenth plague, the killing of the first–born of Egypt, is soon to occur. Yet in contrast to the unfolding of the first nine plagues, this one must wait a bit. Two things must happen first: the Israelites must ask their Egyptian neighbors to give them objects of gold and silver, and they must prepare for the first Passover. The Torah explains why the Egyptians would agree to give the Israelites what they request: “The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt [literally, was seen as very great] among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.” (Exodus 11:3)
This verse is puzzling. Why would Moses be esteemed in Egypt? It is rare that a freedom leader is popular among his people’s oppressors. Martin Luther King was not highly regarded in the George Wallace administration. In explaining the Torah’s comment on Moses’ status, Nahmanides states simply what caused Pharaoh’s courtiers to view Moses the way they did: he had brought plagues upon them. In other words, they did not esteem him in the usual sense of those words, but saw him as great – that is, greatly to be feared. Pharaoh’s men recognized Moses as a man of stature who represented a powerful God. He was not to be trifled with.
Nahmanides goes on to comment that Moses being esteemed “among the people” (not just among Pharaoh’s courtiers) means among the Israelites. In this case, it was true esteem. Previously, Moses’ own people had not regarded him highly. Before he brought the plagues on Egypt, the Israelites refused to listen to him, and blamed him for increasing their burdens rather than easing them. By now, however, Moses’ stature had grown very much among his own folk. They recognized him as a true prophet of God.
The plagues of Egypt form the centerpiece of the entire first part of the Book of Exodus. They are both the culmination of what came before, and a springboard for the exodus that is to happen. Moses comes into his own as the visible embodiment of the power of the God of Israel, the power that can destroy Egypt. It is this exercise of power that makes Moses feared by the Egyptians and respected – if not yet loved – by the Israelites. Moses’ dealings with the Egyptians do not last much longer. After the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, they are no longer a factor. Moses’ responsibilities for his own people remain for the rest of his life. His dealings with them will be turbulent and troubled. His staying power as a leader will be made possible by his initial demonstration of power that will underlie his future exercise of leadership through other means as well.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi