Netanyahu and Moses: Parshat Va’era: Exodus: 6:2-9:35
I recognize that argument by analogy is the weakest form of argument if it can even be counted as a legitimate form of rational argument at all. But it is one of the most common forms of commentary used in biblical interpretation. That is not because of the strength of its reasoning, but because of the often brilliant insights provided by great leaps of the imagination which happen to resonate with reality.
This parshat about the escape of the Jews from Egypt and their return to the Promised Land is so well known that it scarce requires any repetition. Instead, I want to tell a contrasting contemporary story about Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, through the lens of the Torah, and ask the question whether his mission is to lead the Jews into the whole land of Israel or whether it is his destiny to lead the Jews, reluctantly of course, out of Eretz Israel altogether.
Like Moses and his brother, Aaron, Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) had a brother, Jonathan (Joni). Aaron was the older brother by three years. In the Biblical text, as Rashi noted, in some places the two are referred to as Aaron and Moshe and, at other places, as Moshe and Aaron. Though Moses is referred to as the greatest Jew in the history of the Jewish people, Rashi says that Aaron and Moshe were two sides of the same coin. Both act in the face of a far greater earthly power. But they play complementary roles. Aaron is the man of words, the orator, the rhetorician, while Moses serves as the political leader. Both rose to the greatest heights in the expression and realization of their God-given skills.
At first glance, one might presume that the comparison is of Bibi to Moses and Joni to Aaron. After all, like Aaron, Joni was the older. But Joni died young. Further, Bibi was the orator. Though Joni was a great commander of his elite strike force in the IDF, he was more akin to Rabin; Joni was not a media star while that is the very route Bibi took to rise to the pinnacle of power in Israel by becoming a minor star in the U.S. media firmament. So I start with comparing Bibi to Aaron and Joni to Moses, for like Moses, no matter what happens in history, Joni will be remembered as one of the great figures in Jewish history who led the attack that freed the captives in Entebbe in Uganda and allowed them to return to Israel, though he himself would only return in a casket. As one of the few Jewish writers to emerge in America after WWII, one who seemed to lack any neurosis and even retained his role as an observant Jew, as one who celebrated rather than begrudged military figures, Herman Wouk wrote of Joni in the following terms:
He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance, a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. On the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War, the unit he led was part of the force that held back a sea of Soviet tanks manned by Syrians, in a celebrated stand; and after Entebbe, “Yoni” became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with somber reverence.
Further, according to what was known of Joni, he was an exemplar of humility. Whatever one can say about Bibi, few if any would say he is humble. On the other hand, we all know that Joni occupies a mythical place among the stars of the redemption of Israel for his martyrdom in the rescue of the Jews captured by Arab terrorists and taken to Entebbe. But Benjamin Netanyahu was also a man of action and not just of words, for he was a commando in the same elite unit in which Joni served who went on another mission and rescued Jews hijacked on a Sabena flight. It was Bibi who would emerge as both the orator and the political leader. I suggest that we look at Netanyahu as made up of two souls, his own inner being as an orator, as a man of words, as an Aaron, and, as well, as a ghost in the mechanism of his body, the ghost of Joni who could have risen to be a rival to Rabin in the political landscape. In other words, Bibi Netanyahu is both Aaron and Moses in his own mind, but his true self was to be a spokesperson. The political mission fell into his lap inadvertently, though not reluctantly as was the actual case with Moses.
Many if not most of the prophets of Israel were reluctant to assume their roles – Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even the satirical figure, Jonah. Moses asks God to find someone else. He can’t do the job. Even though Moses had been raised as a prince of Egypt, he asked, who am I to assume such a lofty role? He also contended that the people of Israel would not believe him and accept him as their leader; after all, he had not been brought up among them. Further, like the stuttering King George VI of Britain in a time when Britain was threatened with being overrun by Nazi Germany, Moses reluctantly assumed the role of titular leader of his people in spite of his overpowering stutter. Moses too was a stutterer and had uncircumcised lips. Moses’ fourth reason for his reluctance; he had no desire to assume the role. Others were more ambitious and more interested and more capable.
None of these four reasons were Bibi’s problem. He always was convinced not only that he could do the job, but that he was the best person for the job. He also believed, if given the right circumstances for his people to assess him, they too would become convinced that he was the best man for the position. He obviously had the gift of the gab and was a terrific orator. Further, perhaps no one in the history of modern Israel was so convinced that he was destined to become the leader; as many would attest, he had a messianic complex. For his essence was to be an Aaron who took on the role of a political leader rather than a leader with the essential spirit of Moses in his soul. Adopting the mantle of Moses was shapeshifting, assuming the ghost of Joni while underneath lacking those leadership skills. He was convinced of his own abilities, of his own worth, of his own powers of persuasion and, most of all, of his destiny. If he faced any problem, it was the inability and reluctance of the Israeli people to recognize all of that. That was the major, and perhaps only real obstacle that he had to overcome.
Look at how Bibi went out into the diaspora, not as a shepherd who rashly but out of compassion for his kin who was a slave being beaten by an overseer, killed that very same overseer. Bibi had never been banished to Midian and willingly accepted his role as never-to-be-remembered figure. Each step was taken to advance his ambition.
Further, Moses begs to be excused because he is an initial failure. When he first asks Pharaoh to let my people go, Pharaoh laughs at Moses and makes the Israelite slaves work harder as punishment for the chutzpah of their so-called leader. The Israelites reacted, not by rallying around Moses, but by getting angry and asking him to leave office. Recall that Bibi also was voted out of office when he pissed off Bill Clinton and failed in forging a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“My Lord, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he did evil to this people. But You did not rescue Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-23) But it was not Bibi, the orator, who failed, but Bibi the ghost of Joni. Unlike Moses, instead of asking why God failed both him and the Israelites to free his people, Bibi blamed himself. God promised redemption and redemption did come once again when Barak, in spite of the most generous offer imaginable by an Israeli leader to the Palestinians, also failed, and Bibi once again retuned to leadership of the Jewish people. Unlike Moses, he believed it was his destiny and mission to lead Israel.
But had not Moses been raised in the luxury of America? Had he not mastered the way of the Americans just as Moses had of the Egyptian elite? But so had Joni. Both returned to Israel. Both served in the IDF in illustrious roles. There is a difference however. While Moses could never acclimatize himself to being an Egyptian and always felt uncomfortable even though he had been adopted as an infant and raised in a royal household, Bibi, in fact, was more at home in America than in Israel. If he had stayed in America, though, because he was born abroad, he could possibly have risen to become vizier, a very big man in a very big pond rather than a very big man in a relatively little pond. Bibi never lost that sense of entitlement and lectured both two Democratic presidents as if he was their equal in stature and power. Bibi has always been a would-be president of the United States. Bibi was no Moses.
So when each president would not do his bidding, he subverted first one by slow-walking the peace process and the second one by increasingly confronting Barack Obama, and telling him that he had not learned the lessons of history, that he was naïve and that he had made a bad deal, a bad, bad deal with Iran. Bibi was no withering vine. Bibi was no Moses. Moses was appalled at the hardships of slavery of the Israelites. Bibi was appalled that Jews anywhere did not have absolute power to determine their own destiny, attributing the suffering of the Jewish people to the absence of such power. Moses was sensitive to the fact that his people had incorporated the spirit of bondage in their very being. Bibi was extremely proud that Israelites had presumably and absolutely thrown off the spirit of bondage that afflicted Jews in the diaspora. For Bibi was destined to be the redeemer of the entire land of Israel; for Moses, God always remained the redeemer, not he. This was true even though Moses exhibited such a range of skills, and accomplishments, and in spite of his severe handicap. He was a prince, shepherd, politician, law-giver, teacher, judge and prophet.
Bibi, in contrast, was the child of a very embittered man, in Benzion Netanyahu’s own estimation, forced to live out the best years of his life in exile. When Bibi as an adult himself lived in the diaspora, he was, in contrast, not a humble shepherd, but a media star, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, and, at a very young age, ambassador of Israel to the United Nations. He then became a politician, not through being chosen by God, nor initially by being chosen by the people, but by having mastered the ability of getting ahead politically be accruing wealthy supporters and by forging a network of very ambitious colleagues. He never received any renown as a legislator even though the rule of law is central to the life of the Jewish people. Nor was he ever a teacher, unless a teacher is defined like both he and his father as a pontificator of personal convictions and received opinions rather than as an inquirer into the truth. He was known for his partisanship and his skills as a political broker rather than for any sense of judicious fairness. He saw himself as a prophet even though that very conviction made him blind to the advantages of the Iran nuclear deal, especially for Israel.
I write this as a form of explanation for why Bibi treated Obama as if he was Pharaoh rather than a partner and supporter of the Israel people. For Bibi, Obama was a front man for Evil rather than simply a leader with a different perspective, a different set of obligations, a different approach and a different attitude, hope rather than pessimism. When Moses was called forth to confront Pharaoh and lead the people back to Israel, he was given a staff, a mateh, that turned into a serpent and back into a staff as an instrument, not only to prove God’s magical powers, but as the very tool that would call forth the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptian people.
Now there are many questions to ask about those plagues. For one, why punish the Egyptian people for the evils of their autocratic leader? Most of all, why kill innocent babes in the cause of your own freedom? But I will not deal with any of those issues. Rather, I want to ask what was the staff that would bring water out of rocks, that would divide the sea so that the Israelites could cross, but, most of all, what was the rod that was used to confuse Pharaoh, raise his wrath and bring about one plague after another on the Egyptian people?
The cobra, a god of the Egyptians, as symbolically represented on the headdress of the Pharaoh, was the supposed source of divine power for the Pharaoh. Moses was given the power to grab the snake and turn it into a power for himself, a rigid staff rather than wriggly serpent. Second, the snake represented a reversal of what happened in the Garden of Eden. There Adam had viewed his masculinity as an Other, as something for which he was not responsible. Further, that Other, that erect penis with a mind of its own, abused the skills of language and seduced Eve, or, in my interpretation, responded naturally to a female, but in the process, further encouraged Adam to distance him from his responsibility. Thus, turning the crawling, twisting snake back into a staff was a symbol of recovering one’s masculinity, of reintegrating oneself as en embodied creature willing and courageous enough to mark one’s place in the world. Third, in addition to the mateh symbolizing the seizure of the magical powers of the Other, in addition to the mateh, the staff, representing the reaffirmation of oneself as a courageous embodied creature standing up mano-to-mano, the serpent is also a symbol of man assuming he is God, assuming he is the ultimate in vision, in insight, in the determination of the use of power, in understanding how power works and how history will unfold.
The snake represents the power in the enemy Other, the power already in oneself, and the transcendent other of the Almighty Other. To turn that serpent once again into a stiff staff is to perform all three actions at one and the same time. The problem emerges not when one combines all three, but when one misconstrues the friend, the supporter, the adviser, the provider, not as a perhaps mistaken ally, but as a front for Evil. The problem is not in the snake and the staff, but in he who seizes it and uses it and who it is seen to be used against and who it is actually used against. Because Bibi sees himself as a Moses, but is really an Aaron, because he wears the ghostly cloak of his dead brother, because he projects onto others with whom he disagrees the character of the Devil, Bibi backs himself and Israel into a dark corner, not just a cave, but a black hole where light is sucked in rather than emitted, where, despair squelches all hope, a situation where a man who sees himself as leading the Jewish people to the promise of the whole land of Israel in the end leads them out of Israel because, in contrast to Ben Gurion who absolutely saw the need of a small nation to have a very large nation as a patron, Bibi got caught up in the myth of self-sufficiency.
Pray to God that his false leadership, that his mis-leadership, that, in the final analysis, his non-leadership shall end, the sooner the better. Otherwise I fear the plagues will fall on Israel and not on Israel’s true enemies.
With the assistance of Alex Zisman