By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
January 11, 2002
After the initial setbacks experienced by the Jewish slaves, it is time to show Pharaoh that Hashem is in control. Moshe now understands that the process leading to redemption will be gradual, and that Pharaoh will repeatedly refuse to release the slaves.
Since they will later be the instruments of Hashem's altering the laws of nature, Moshe and Aharon must establish that they represent supernatural forces. And, of course, Pharaoh remains unmoved.
And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: "When Pharaoh will tell you, saying, 'Provide yourselves a sign', then you will say to Aharon, 'Take your staff and cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a crocodile." And Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and they did so, as Hashem had commanded, and Aharon cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a crocodile. And Pharaoh called also (GAM) for the wise men and for the magicians, and the soothsayers of Egypt, also (GAM) they, did so with their tricks. And each one cast his staff, and they became crocodiles; and the staff of Aharon swallowed their staffs. And the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened and he did not listen to them, as Hashem had said (Shemot 7:8-13).[The translation here of tanin as "crocodile" (vs 9,10,12) follows Rabbi S.R. Hirsch's commentary and a few others. The usual translation of tanin as "snake" follows Rashi (7:10).]
This is the first of many signs (and, later, plagues) that will assault Pharaoh.
It is not surprising that Pharaoh is unimpressed by this conjuration. After all, Egypt is the world center for sorcery. So, Pharaoh mocks their tricks and their G-d. Then, to add insult to injury,
"Immediately he sent and brought children from their school and they did so too. What is more, he called his wife and she did so, as it is said, "And Pharaoh called also" (GAM). What is also (GAM)? That he even called his wife and she did so. And the soothsayers of Egypt, also they (GAM HEM), did so - What is also (GAM)? He even called the children of four and five years and they did so" (Shemot Rabbah 9:4).
The word GAM suggests more than is stated: not only the wise men and the magicians, but even the wife of Pharaoh; and not only the soothsayers of Egypt, but even the children. Everyone in Egypt is able to turn staffs into crocodiles! No wonder Pharaoh hardens his heart!
Rabbenu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13th Century) reads this midrash as a societal progression, from the children and Pharaoh's wife, to the wise men, magicians and soothsayers. This ascent finally points towards Pharaoh,
the great crocodile who crouches in the midst of his canals, who has said, 'Mine is my canal; I have made it for myself' (Yechezkel 29:3, from the Haftara. All the Pharaohs considered themselves as gods and absolute rulers of the Nile, hence the metaphor of a crocodile which is the reptile that rules the Nile. Yechezkel, like Moshe, challenges Pharaoh for regarding himself the absolute ruler when in reality only Hashem is.)
Even "the great crocodile" himself is prepared to exploit his own symbol in order to flaunt his power!
As the signs and plagues progress, Pharaoh's stubbornness increases. After the plague of blood,
And Pharaoh turned and came to his house, and he did not set his heart even (GAM) to this (7:23).
Rashi comments on even (GAM) to this,
"neither to the sign of the staff that turned to a Tanin, nor to this one of blood."
Again, after the plague of wild beasts,
And Pharaoh made his heart heavy, this time also (GAM), and he did not let the people go (8:28).
Pharaoh adds GAM to GAM, sin to sin.
GAM was Pharaoh's word when he first declared that he would not hear of freeing the slaves:
And Pharaoh said, "Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Hashem, and furthermore V'GAM) I will not let Israel go!" (5:2).
It might be said that GAM exemplifies Pharaoh's view of reality, because it connotes an ever-widening scope. For Pharaoh, "the great crocodile", everything is GAM, because everything is under his control: "Also this, and also this, it is all mine. And if I have never heard of Hashem, then of course He cannot be important."
There cannot be two absolute rulers, so Pharaoh must declare through GAM how far he thinks his rule extends before he can be educated to see that all that, and more, is Hashem's rule.
Since Hashem aims to demonstrate that only He is the Master of all, He responds to Pharaoh with GAM. In assuring the Children of Israel of His salvation, Hashem declares:
And also (V'GAM) I have established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their
sojournings where they sojourned. And also (V'GAM) I have heard the cries of the Children of Israel, how Egypt enslaves them, and I have remembered My covenant (Shemot 6:4-5).
Before wild beasts invade Egypt, He proclaims:
behold I send against you, and your servants, and your people, and your houses, the wild beasts; and the houses of Egypt will fill with wild beasts, as well as (V'GAM) the land upon which they are (8:17).
Hashem's representative Moshe is also exalted:
also (GAM) the man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharaoh's servants and in the eyes of the people (11:3).
Only when Pharaoh acknowledges that Hashem is in command of GAM will the Children of Israel be freed:
And [Pharaoh] called for Moshe and Aharon at the night, and he said, "Arise, leave from the midst of my people, both (GAM) you as well as (GAM) the Children of Israel, and go worship Hashem as you spoke. Take also (GAM) your sheep as well as (GAM) your cattle as you spoke, and go; and bless me also (GAM) (12:31-32).
Pharaoh places himself after the sheep and cattle, and puts himself at the mercy of Hashem and His emissaries.
"Educate the youth according to his way", says King Shlomo in Mishlei (22:6). Hashem knows well that Pharaoh's world-view is unrestricted and unbound - of GAM. Pharaoh - and all those who set themselves in Hashem's place - can expect the ultimate education.