Let My People Go

Exploring Moses and Aaron's confrontation with Pharaoh

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The following piece shows how midrash functions by exploring one midrashic teaching. Starting with a short piece from the Bible, the authors bring a classical midrash on it, followed by their explanation of the midrash. Afterward, they offer their own modern interpretations on the text and midrash in sections marked "D'rash"--meaning to examine or investigate--and "Another D'rash." The latter is a play on the common midrashic technique of adding additional interpretations by saying, Davar aher, "another interpretation."  Excerpted with permission from Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Jewish Publication Society).

Bible Text: Exodus 5:1-2

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the God of Israel: Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness." But Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go."

Midrash Text: Exodus Rabbah 5,14

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said, "That day was a day of Pharaoh's reception of ambassadors, and all the kinds came to pay him great honor. They brought gifts of crowns with which to crown him, for it was the Day of the Cosmocrator [the lord of the world], and they brought their gods with them. After they [the ambassadors and kings] had crowned him, Moses and Aaron were standing by the door of Pharaoh's palace.

pharoah and moses"His servants entered and said, 'Two elders are standing at the door.' He said to them, 'Let them come up.' When they came up, he looked at them--perhaps they would crown him, or perhaps they would give him letters--but they did not even greet him. He said to them, 'Who are you?' They said to him, 'We are representatives of the Holy One, praised is He.' 'What do you request?' They said to him, 'Thus says the God of Israel: Let my people go...' At that moment he got angry and said, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? He didn't even know enough to send me a crown; rather with words [alone] you come to me? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.'

"He said to them, 'Wait for me until I check my book.' He immediately entered his palace and looked up each and every nation and its gods. He began to read: the gods of Moab, and the gods of Ammon, and the gods of Sidon. He said to them, 'I searched for his name in my archives but I could not find it.'"

Rabbi Levi said, "A parable: To what is this similar? To a Kohen [Jewish priest] who had an idiot servant. The Kohen went outside the province. The servant went to seek his master in a cemetery. He began calling to people standing there, 'You haven't seen my master here?' They said to him, 'Your master, isn't he a Kohen?' He said to them, 'Yes.'

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Gershon Schwartz was the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn., from 2000-2003. He co-authored Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.

Rabbi Michael Katz

Michael Katz is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, N.Y. He is the author of The Rabbi's Wife.