Tag Archives: Ten Plagues

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.

 

The Kabbalah of Moses’ Divine Staff

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven plagues to strike Egypt. These were brought about through the Staff of Moses, as were the later Splitting of the Sea, the victory over Amalek (Exodus 17) and the water brought forth from a rock. What was so special about this particular staff, and what was the source of its power?

Pirkei Avot (5:6) famously states that the Staff was one of ten special things to be created in the twilight between the Sixth Day and the first Shabbat. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40) elaborates:

Rabbi Levi said: That staff which was created in the twilight was delivered to the first man out of the Garden of Eden. Adam delivered it to Enoch, and Enoch delivered it to Noah, and Noah to Shem. Shem passed it on to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob brought it down to Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph, and when Joseph died and they pillaged his household goods, it was placed in the palace of Pharaoh.

And Jethro was one of the magicians of Egypt, and he saw the staff and the letters which were upon it, and he desired it in his heart, and he took it and brought it, and planted it in the midst of the garden of his house. No one was able to approach it any more.

When Moses came to his house, he went into Jethro’s garden, and saw the staff and read the letters which were upon it, and he put forth his hand and took it. Jethro watched Moses, and said: “This one in the future will redeem Israel from Egypt.” Therefore, he gave him Tzipporah his daughter to be his wife…

God gave the staff to Adam, who gave it to Enoch (Hanokh)—who, according to tradition, later transformed into the angel Metatron—and Enoch passed it on further until it got to Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh confiscated it after Joseph’s death. The passage then alludes to another Midrashic teaching that Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ future father-in-law, was once an advisor to Pharaoh, along with Job and Bila’am (see Sanhedrin 106a). The wicked Bila’am was the one who advised Pharaoh to drown the Israelite male-born in the Nile. While Job remained silent (for which he was so severely punished later), Jethro protested the cruel decree, and was forced to resign and flee because of it. As he fled, he grabbed the divine staff with him. Arriving in Midian, his new home, Jethro stuck the staff in the earth, at which point it seemingly gave forth deep roots and was immovable.

A related Midrash states that all the suitors that sought the hand of his wise and beautiful Tzipporah were asked to take the staff out of the earth, and should they succeed, could marry Jethro’s daughter. None were worthy. (Not surprisingly, some believe that this Midrash may have been the source for the Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur.) Ultimately, Moses arrived and effortlessly pulled the staff out of the ground.

The passage above states that Moses was mesmerized by the letters engraved upon the staff, as was Jethro before him. What were these letters?

The 72 Names

Targum Yonatan (on Exodus 4:20) explains:

And Moses took the rod which he had brought away from the chamber of his father-in-law, made from the sapphire Throne of Glory; its weight forty se’ah; and upon it was engraved and set forth the Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought before Hashem by his hand…

God’s Ineffable Name was engraved upon the sapphire staff, which was itself carved out of God’s Heavenly Throne. The staff weighed a whopping 40 se’ah, equivalent to the minimum volume of a kosher mikveh, which is roughly 575 litres of water, or 575 kilograms. (This would explain why none could dislodge the staff, except he who had God’s favour.)

A parallel Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 8:3) also confirms that the staff was of pure sapphire, weighing forty se’ah, but says it was engraved with the letters that stand for the Ten Plagues, as we recite at the Passover seder: datzach, adash, b’achav (דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב).

A final possibility is that the “Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought” refers to the mystical 216-letter Name of God (or 72-word Name of God). This Name is actually 72 linked names, each composed of three letters. The names are derived from the three verses Exodus 14:19-21:

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet it gave light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and Hashem caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.

The 72 Three-Letter Names of God

Each of these verses has exactly 72 letters. Hidden within them is this esoteric Name of God, the most powerful, through which came about the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as the verses themselves describe. The Name (or 72 Names) is derived by combining the first letter of the first verse, then the last letter of the second verse, and then the first letter of the third verse. The same is done for the next letter, and so on, for all 72 Names.

Since the Splitting of the Sea and the plagues were brought about through these Names, the Midrash above may be referring not to the Ineffable Name, but to these 72 Names as being engraved upon the Staff. In fact, it may be both.

Staff from Atzilut

The 72 Names are alluded to by another mystical 72-Name of God. The Arizal taught that God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in four ways. This refers to a practice called milui,* where the letters of each word are themselves spelled out to express the inner value and meaning of the word. God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in these ways, with the corresponding values:

יוד הא ואו הא = 45

יוד הה וו הה = 52

יוד הי ואו הי = 63

יוד הי ויו הי = 72

The Name with the 72 value is the highest, not just numerically, but according to the sefirot, partzufim, and universes laid out in Kabbalah. The 52-Name corresponds to Malkhut and the world of Asiyah; the 45-Name to Zeir Anpin (the six “masculine” sefirot) and the world of Yetzirah; and the 63-Name to Binah and the world of Beriah. The 72-Name—which is, of course, tied to the above 72 Names of God—corresponds to the highest universe, Atzilut, the level of God’s Throne, where there is nothing but His Emanation and Pure Light. Here we come full circle, for the Midrash states that the Staff of Moses was itself carved out of God’s Throne. This otherworldly staff came down to this world from the highest Heavenly realm!

Where is the Staff Today?

What happened to Moses’ staff after his passing? Another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 869) answers:

…the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is likewise the holy staff with which Moses worked, and with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh, and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath. David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a sceptre until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a sceptre as a sign of his authority over the heathens.

This incredible passage contains a great deal of novel insight. Firstly, Jacob used this divine staff to split the Jordan and allow his large family to safely cross back to Israel, just as the Israelites would later cross the Jordan in miraculous fashion under the leadership of Joshua. It seems Joshua himself, as Moses’ rightful successor, held on to the staff, and passed it down through the Judges and Prophets until it came to the hand of David. Unlike the traditional account of David slaying Goliath with the giant’s own sword, the Midrash here says he slew Goliath with the staff!

The staff remained in the Davidic dynasty until the kingdom’s end with the destruction of the First Temple. At this point a lot of things mysteriously disappeared, most famously the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the Ark was hidden in a special chamber built for it by Solomon, who envisioned the day that the Temple would be destroyed. It is likely that the staff is there, too, alongside it.

Mashiach will restore both of these, and will once again wield the sceptre of the Davidic dynasty. As the staff is forged from God’s own Heavenly Throne, it is fitting that Mashiach—God’s appointed representative, who sits on His corresponding earthly throne—should hold a piece of it. And this symbol, the Midrash concludes, will be what makes even the heathens accept Mashiach’s—and God’s—authority. Jacob prophesied this on his deathbed (Genesis 49:10), in his blessing to Judah:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the coming of Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of all the peoples be.

Shiloh is one of the titles for Mashiach (see Sanhedrin 98b), and his wielding of the staff will bring about the obedience of all the world’s people to God’s law. We can now also solve a classic problem with the above verse:

The verse states that the sceptre will not depart from Judah until the coming of Mashiach, as if it will depart from Judah when Mashiach comes. This makes no sense, since Mashiach is a descendent of Judah! It should have simply said that the sceptre shall never depart from Judah, from whom the messiah will come. Rather, Jacob is hinting that the Staff will one day be hidden in the land of Judah, deep below “between his feet”, and won’t budge from there for millennia until Mashiach comes and finally restores it.

May we merit to see it soon.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Interestingly, using the same milui method, one can expand the word staff (מטה) like this: מאם טאת הה, which is 501, equivalent to דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב, the acronym for the Ten Plagues which the Staff brought about!

Nisan: Transcending Nature

This week we start the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The English name of the book is Leviticus, referring to the fact that much of the book is concerned with priestly laws. In addition to the week’s parasha, we also read an extra section called Parashat HaChodesh, meant to prepare us for the upcoming holiday of Passover.

Parashat HaChodesh recalls God’s command to the Jewish people to set the month of Nisan as the first month of the year. Although we count the years from the start of Tishrei – which is the 7th month – the months themselves are counted from Nisan. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) tells us that there are actually four new years: “the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes… the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for sabbaticals, jubilees, for planting and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the house of Shammai; according to the house of Hillel, however, it is the fifteenth of Shevat.”

Nisan represents the new year when it comes to the sequence of holidays, and to the counting of the reigning of kings. The Gemara explains here that even if a king took the throne at the end of the month of Adar, and the month of Nisan begins just a week later, he is already considered to have started his second year of kingship! The big question is, why is Nisan singled out as the month to start all months, and what does kingship have to do with any of it?

The Straight Serpent and the Twisted Serpent

The prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent” (Ezekiel 29:3). Meanwhile, the prophet Isaiah mentions two serpents: nachash bariach, the “straight serpent”, and nachash ‘akalaton, the “twisted serpent”. The Kabbalistic Sages state that the straight serpent represents Moses, while the twisted serpent represents Pharaoh. The twisted serpent is depicted as one with its tail in its mouth, forming the shape of a circle (a mystical symbol often known as the ouroboros in Greek).

Ouroboros

Ouroboros

The circle is a shape that represents cycles, and is symbolic of nature. In nature, just about everything is cyclical: the movements of the stars and planets in their orbits, the months and years, the seasons, the water cycle, the circle of life, and so on. The circle thus represents the physical world and its strict, repeating laws of nature.

The straight line – Moses’ nachash bariach – represents the very opposite. It is a symbol of a direct connection to the upper worlds. It is about breaking free from the strict, cyclical laws of nature, and transcending into a higher realm. Indeed, this is one of the meanings of the name “Israel” (ישראל) which can be split into yashar el (ישר-אל), literally “straight to God”.

The Egyptians, with Pharaoh central among them, believed in nature and its various forces. They worshipped the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky, the Nile river (and its cyclical, seasonal flooding), a host of animals, and countless other natural entities. This was their entire reality.

The Jews, on the other hand, with Moses central among them, believed in Hashem, the one infinite God, the creator of all natural forces. They knew there is a God above all the laws of nature, one who could perform supernatural miracles when necessary. This was the very essence of the Ten Plagues, which were meant to convince all doubters that the laws of nature can be totally broken. They are all under the supervision of One God.

This was also the symbolism behind the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses’ straight staff turned into a serpent. The staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians turned into serpents, too, but “twisted” ones. In supernatural fashion, Moses’ serpent swallowed the others whole. The straight serpent devoured the twisted serpents.

The Central Lesson of Pesach

One of the key lessons of Pesach is to teach us that we are not bound by the laws of nature. God created us in His divine image, and told us from the very beginning that we are above nature (Genesis 1:27-28). Today, many would want to have us believe that we are nothing but biological machines, here because of strict, mechanistic, evolutionary laws – laws that we cannot break free from – subject to our genes, our neural wiring, and conditioning. The reality is in fact the very opposite: our bodies are only vessels for our souls, and we are in control of our bodies, not the other way around.

The Sages state that a person who is above the natural whims of their body is a true king. The Hebrew word for “king”, melekh, is spelled מ-ל-ך, where מ stands for מוח (brain, or mind), ל stands for לב (heart), and כ stands for כבד (liver). God created the body with the brain anatomically above the heart, and the heart above the liver. The lesson is that our minds should be “above” our hearts (representing emotions and desires), and above our livers (representing honour and pride). A king is one whose mind is in control of their body. The opposite case, where one’s desires are above their mind, and the ego above all, would carry the opposite sequence of letters: כ-ל-ם, which spells klum, meaning “nothing”. And finally, a person who does not necessarily have much pride, but nonetheless succumbs to the petty emotions and desires of their body, has the sequence ל-מ-ך, which spells lemekh, meaning “servant”. They are likened to one who is enslaved by their body.

The message of Passover is to free ourselves from slavery. To become real kings. The month of Nisan is the best opportunity to do this, a month whose very root is nes (נס), “miracles”. It is the month of transcending nature, the first of the months; the new year of festivals, and the new year of kings.

The Meaning of God’s Names

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, the Torah describes the first seven plagues that God brought upon Egypt. The purpose of the plagues was multi-fold. Firstly, and most simply, they were meant to break the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, and set the latter free. Secondly, and more importantly, they were meant to reveal God’s complete control over the entire universe, and show how all idolatry was false. There are no other “gods” or powers of any kind, whatsoever. This is the central message of the entire narrative, from start to finish.

In last week’s portion, we read how Moses asks God how he should describe God to the people. God’s reply is: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Will Be What I Will Be”. God has no name, no form, nor any kind of physical description. He tells Moses to simply inform the people that Moses was sent by Ehyeh – “Will Be”. God Is, Was, and always Will Be. God simply is. He is all things, the infinite force that permeates everything in creation and beyond. Because God is infinite, there is no term that could describe Him, and no “name” that can be applied to Him. This is why God tells Moses that He just is.

However, we do see that there are indeed “names” of God. In fact, there are a multitude of different names that are applied to the Infinite One, and God Himself describes a couple of these names to Moses at the start of this week’s portion. What is the significance of these “names”?

The Names of God

All of the many names that the holy texts use in reference to God are essentially only there to help us understand Him. For example, God’s central name – the Tetragrammaton, made up of the letters yud, hei, vav, hei (י-ה-ו-ה, commonly transliterated as YHWH) – demonstrates God’s eternity. The name is essentially a combination of the conjugations of the verb להיות – “to be” – in all three tenses: past (haya, היה), present (hov’e, הווה), and future (ihyeh, יהיה).

Another name that we are given at the start of our parasha is El-Shaddai. This literally translates along the lines of “the God that is Enough”, or “The Sufficient One”. This is another lesson in monotheism: it is sufficient to have only One God, and no others are necessary.

Other names throughout the Torah include Makom – “Place” – denoting God’s complete omnipresence, and that He is found absolutely everywhere, in all places and all things. (This reminds of a famous adage of the Kotzker Rebbe: “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”) Another common name is Elohim – “Powers” – a word that is surprisingly in the plural, yet used in the singular form, again showing that all of the apparent forces present in creation are truly One. Extrabiblical Jewish texts describe God as Ribbono shel Olam, “Master of the Universe”; HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”; and Ain Sof, “Without End” (ie. the Infinite).

All of these appellations essentially refer to the same things: God is One, eternal, and permeating all things, both within and beyond this universe. None of these are really “names” in the literal sense, but ways to describe God. This is one deeper reason why the Tetragrammaton is never pronounced – instead replaced with Hashem, “The Name” – for how can an Infinite Force be contained within such a finite label like a name?

God informs Moses that this is what He wants the people to understand – both the Israelites and the Egyptians. The primary vehicle for accomplishing this was through the Ten Plagues, which completely shattered the Egyptian conception of polytheism. How the Plagues went about accomplishing this will hopefully be the focus of next week’s post.

An Honest Look at the Film ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Shemot, known in English as ‘Exodus’. This volume is primarily concerned with the period of Israelite slavery in Egypt, and the subsequent salvation following the ten plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, climaxing with the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the start of the transmission of the bulk of the Torah’s laws.

Coincidentally, not long ago was released Ridley Scott’s new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and I finally had a chance to see it this week. Though it appeared to show a little bit of promise at the start, the movie soon unravelled into a bizarre re-invention of the Biblical story. Of course, there is nothing wrong with some artistic liberties when adapting an ancient text for a modern film, nor is it too much of a problem to fill in some of the gaps in the Torah’s narrative. However, Exodus: Gods and Kings presented a completely twisted version that did not even slightly stick to the basic story of the Torah. It would take an entire tome to cover all the mistakes in the film, but perhaps we can offer just a few of the most blatant ones.

From the very beginning, we see that Moses seems to be completely unaware that he is not Egyptian. That’s quite odd: Semites and Egyptians had a totally different appearance. Take a look at this depiction of Semitic tribes, as discovered in the 12th dynasty tomb of Egyptian Khnumhotep II, official of the pharaoh Senusret II:

IbschaEgyptSemites

The Semites have a different skin tone, different hair styles, clothes, and so on. The filmmakers clearly knew this, as they show Moses bearded and sporting a nice hairdo, while all the other Egyptian royals are clean-shaven and bald. His eyes look different, and he wears clothes of a completely different style than all the others. How come? Didn’t he ever question why he doesn’t look anything like his “royal brethren”?

More importantly, the Torah clearly says that Moses was initially raised by his true birth mother, Yocheved (Exodus 2:7-9). Only after he was fully weaned did Yocheved present Moses to his new step-mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter (v. 10). It is totally inconceivable that Moses did not know he was a Hebrew! The Torah states that when Moses grew up, he “went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens” (2:11). He knew full-well that he was going out to his people.

At this point, when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster violently beating a Jew, he stepped in to save the victim, killing the Egyptian in the process. In the movie, this heroic act is replaced with an enraged Moses killing an Egyptian guard who was doing nothing terrible at all. The kind, compassionate Moses, described by the Torah as the humblest man that ever lived, is turned into a violent brute who kills indiscriminately. No wonder that Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, said of his character that he was “likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Makes sense if all he ever read about Moses was in the script for the film.

If Christian Bale did indeed read about Moses, perhaps he missed the whole part where Moses selflessly led his people for forty years in the wilderness. Where he literally sat from morning to evening to counsel the people and help them (Exodus 18:13). Or when he refused to abandon his people, even when God offered to make an entirely new nation out of Moses (Exodus 32:10). The many occasions where he convinced God to avert His just decrees and forgive the nation for their sins. The time where his sister Miriam transgressed severely against Moses, yet he did not hold even the tiniest of grudges or ill-will, and immediately prayed to God to heal Miriam and have mercy on her (Numbers 12:13). Or the simple fact that Moses led the revolution that brought monotheism (together with a higher sense of morality, starting with a set of Ten Commandments) to over two-thirds of the world’s population.

Worse than its depiction of Moses, though, was the film’s depiction of God: an irrational, pointlessly vengeful, literally childish figure. The film made it seem like the Ten Plagues were nothing more than God’s desire to kill as many people as possible. The reality, of course, was that the Ten Plagues were meant to be a measure-for-measure retribution for what the Egyptians had done; nothing more than cosmic karma. For example, just as the whole story begins with Pharaoh ordering the male-born to be drowned in the Nile, it ends with Pharaoh’s own male soldiers drowning in the Red Sea, measure for measure. Nor was God happy about any of this. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) beautifully says that at the Splitting of the Sea, when the Egyptians drowned, the angels began to sing a joyous song, mimicking the Jews that were singing as well – but God immediately stopped them. He rebuked the angels, saying sadly: “My creations are drowning, and you are singing?”

When one studies the texts and commentaries, it becomes clear that each of the Plagues was specifically tailored towards the sins of the Egyptians, and was designed to bring the rightful justice that was due. Nowhere is this fact even hinted to in the movie. Most telling was after the plague of the firstborn, when Pharaoh confronts Moses demanding an answer as to why they suffered such a tragedy. The latter gives no logical reply, saying only that no Hebrews died. Perhaps the scriptwriter should have had something along the lines of: “Hey Pharaoh, did you forget all the countless babies that you slaughtered? Or the many warnings you were given that this was coming, and to stop your evil ways?” The scene almost makes Pharaoh seem like the victim, and Moses the villain. It appears that the main aim of the movie was to cast Moses (and God) in a bad light. It really seems like the filmmakers went out of their way to do this.

Moses is shown carelessly abandoning his family when he goes back to Egypt to save his people. His wife and son are angry, emotionally-scarred, losing their faith – and Moses does nothing about it. What was the point of making this shift from the Torah’s original version, which clearly states “Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 4:20)? He never abandoned his family, but took everyone with him!

It therefore appears quite evident that the purpose of Exodus: Gods and Kings was to turn one of the most beautiful and enduring stories into an ugly, twisted, and corrupt tale. The sheer number of mistakes is both inexcusable and inexplicable. One who wishes to experience a far truer (and more entertaining) version need only to open and read this week’s Torah portion.