At one point in our parashah God instructs Moses, “Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he is coming out to the water” – i.e., the Nile. The commentator Rashi quotes a midrash on this verse which goes as follows: “He is coming out to the water – to urinate, for Pharaoh claimed to be a god and asserted that because of his divine power he did not need to urinate; and therefore he used to rise early to do so in secret in the river.” This seems both bizarre and irrelevant. But in fact it is neither. It works brilliantly on several levels.
Ostensibly the midrash is there to answer an immediate problem in the text – why is Pharaoh going to the river early in the morning? But that is not really the point. The gap in the text is just the starting point.
On a literary level, the midrash is actually a great piece of comic satire. The juxtaposition of the king and his grandiose claims, against the farcical toilet humour of him sneaking down to the river to relieve himself, is an inherently funny image.
It also makes two more serious ideological points. One is against idolatry. The Tanach hates idolatry and attacks it for being based on a silly confusion. Idolatry involves humans worshipping other humans or things made by humans, which is nonsense, because we should only worship something superior to us, namely God. This midrash is about how idolatry leads Pharaoh to try to escape his undignified biological nature in an attempt to make himself into something worthy of worship – which of course is something he cannot do, and the result is grotesque and funny.
The other point is against tyranny. Democratic leaders, even not very good ones, can and do emphasise that they are ordinary people like us. Dictators do not and cannot, because dictatorship is an affront to common sense and human dignity – why should this individual have so much power? The answer that the dictator gives is that he is a superman – a stable genius, the Great Leader and Teacher, the Ever-Victorious Commander – and hence superior to his subjects. The dictator desperately tries to promote this ridiculous idea by putting up gigantic statues in heroic poses, awarding himself absurd titles and making wild claims about his achievements. But they are all lies, all manifestations of the same lie – I am superhuman. And what gives us the power to see through the lie? We find it in the words that God gives Moses to say to the tyrant Pharaoh. “YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go that they may worship Me.’” In other words, there is a God, Mr Dictator, and it isn’t you. That is who people should be worshipping, not you. You are just a human, like the rest of us. Now let us go!
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.