Let My People Go

Exploring Moses and Aaron's confrontation with Pharaoh

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Love may not necessarily be found by looking for it, but rather by looking for peo­ple who possess it. College students who take a Jewish studies course may find some­one who loves to read, to learn, to expand her or his mind. If they attend a Shabbat pro­gram at the local Hillel, they'll likely brush shoulders with those who loveto socialize with like-minded people. If they help out at a nearby soup kitchen, they may just bump into someone special, someone whose love of humanity is as great as their own.

There is nothing wrong with being at a cemetery; in fact, at times, it is a mitzvah. But if we're looking for a Kohen (at least one with a traditional bent), we're less likely to find him there than in other places. Similarly, if we're looking for a soul mate, lover, ideal spouse, or friend, our choice is not only whom to look for, but also where to look.

Another D'rash

Did Moses and Aaron actually call Pharaoh an idiot to his face, as the Midrash reports? Such name-calling was not likely to endear the two brothers to the Egyptian leader. Diplomacy requires showing respect to the people we negotiate with, even if they are our enemies. Insults are just not the best way of getting results. "Idiot" was probably an editorial comment added by the Rabbis as they retold the story.

What about the servant in the cemetery: Did someone actually use the insulting word to him? Though the story is a parable, it is certainly more believable that some­one would have called him an idiot, not only because he did something foolish but also because he was a servant. (If people tend to be too respectful of "high" authority, they also show little consideration for those of "lowly" status.) Despite what might have been said to him, we still have to say that it shouldn't have been said. The word idiot is an inappropriate label with which to tag someone. Not only is it hurtful, it is counter-productive.

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Think about how many times we hear a person apologize, before he or she asks something, by saying, "I know this may sound dumb..." or "I have a stupid question to ask..." And then consider how many questions never even get asked because of such embarrassment. People will do almost anything to avoid looking foolish. (Perhaps this is the reason that people say that men are notorious for not stopping and asking for directions!)

Maybe, too, this is a reason why so many Jews stay away from synagogue services: It's not that they don't believe in God or in prayer. Rather, they are terrified that if they do come, they will end up looking or feeling foolish because of what they do not know. How much more so if they are offered an honor or are asked to participate in the service!

The publishing industry has capitalized on this human aversion to looking like a fool by issuing dozens of basic primers in any number of fields with the title An Idiot's Guide To... or [Blank] for Dummies. This was an ingenious marketing decision. When we're walking through a bookstore, our eyes are caught by the catchy titles. We can all relate to the sense of inadequacy and the fear of looking like an idiot. We buy the books and only the cashier has to know that we consider ourselves "dummies." (Of course, if questioned, we can explain that the volume is a gift for someone else.) We take the book home and study it, so that at least in this field, we never have to appear... like an idiot.

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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.