Let My People Go

Exploring Moses and Aaron's confrontation with Pharaoh

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.’

“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.

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.


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.

We don’t know what kind of teacher Rabbi Levi was, but his casual use of the term “idiot” suggests that he could learn a lesson from the poor servant. When someone doesn’t understand what seems to be obvious, maybe it isn’t so obvious after all. What the servant required was not an insult, but instruction.

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