Let My People Go

Exploring Moses and Aaron's confrontation with Pharaoh

Print this page Print this page

"They said to him, 'Idiot! Who ever saw a Kohen in a cemetery [since they are forbidden to be in the vicinity of corpses]?' So too, Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh, 'Idiot! Is it the way of the dead to be sought after among the living, or the living among the dead? Our God is alive; those others you mentioned are dead. But our God is a living God and an eternal King.'"


Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba takes the very spare biblical text and imagines a much more detailed and dramatic story of Moses' and Aaron's encounter with Pharaoh. While purporting to tell us something about the Egyptian court, Rabbi Hiyya draws upon Roman custom and language. (Cosmocrator is one of the titles used by the emperor.) We are presented a picture of a king so powerful that all the nations of the world come to pay homage to him--all the kings came to pay him honor--yet at the same time, this king is totally ignorant of the existence of the one true God--Who is the Lord that I should heed him?

Rabbi Levi builds on Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba's story. A parable: He likens the great and mighty Pharaoh to a lowly servant (and an idiotic one, at that). We can't help but wonder if the ridicule of Pharaoh was actually a veiled attack by Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Levi on the political leadership of their own time and place (early- to mid-fourth century Israel).

The parable about the idiot servant is based on the law in the Torah that a Kohen, "priest" (one who traced his roots back to Aaron and his family), was not allowed to become "defiled by the dead." In order to officiate in the Temple service, a Kohen had to be in a state of ritual purity. Contact with or proximity to the dead rendered a per­son ritually impure and disqualified a Kohen from offering the sacrifices. The priest had to avoid being in the same room with a dead body and also had to stay away from ceme­teries. (Exceptions were allowed when the Kohen's immediate family member had died.)

Even after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E. by the Romans, the laws con­cerning the Kohen's avoidance of contact with the dead remained in effect, either out of reverence to the past or in anticipation of the future rebuilding of the Temple. To this day, many Kohanim (plural of Kohen) do not attend a funeral or enter a cemetery.


There was a well-known song several years ago entitled "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." The lyrics spoke to a real problem. Just as "you'll never find a Kohen in a cemetery" because it's the wrong place to look, so too love often can't be found in many of the places we search for it.

Some people think that just because an establishment is called a "singles' bar," it's a good place to meet like-minded and interesting singles. But there are many stories (some would call them horror stories) of life in singles' bars, and how unsuccessful, dehumanizing, and demeaning that experience can be. One has only to think of the crude terminology used to describe such a place--a "meat market"--to understand what many people really think.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.