In a recent posting,1 Rabbi Richard Wolpoe, the Nishmablog blogmaser, wrote that in ancient Egypt, upon his death, the heart of a Pharaoh was weighed to see if he was deserving of Heaven or not; the lighter the heart, the greater chance of Heaven. This may be of significance in regard to our reading and understanding of the word kaved as found in Shemot 7:14. Literally, this word means heavy but is generally understood in this framework to indicate the stubbornness of Pharaoh. Understood this way, this term would simply be similar to other words used by the Chumash to indicate this stubbornness.2 If the Torah, though, was incorporating into its narrative the Egyptian linguistic context which associated the weight of a heart with the good or evil of a person, a reference to Pharaoh’s heart being heavy may indicate much more, touching upon Pharaoh’s evil nature beyond his stubbornness. Would the Torah, though, present itself within such a context?
The issue, in this matter, may be two-fold. In the first regard, it could be contended that if we maintain that we cannot understand the full meaning of the Torah text without understanding the societal context in which it was written, the eternal significance and message of the Torah may be open to challenge. Of course, a response to such a potential argument could be easily offered in that all that is being required is further education; we are not in anyway stating that the message itself solely has meaning within this historical model. A call that in order to gain a full comprehension of the Torah text it would be worthwhile to also understand the world of Moshe Rabbeinu, Yetziat Mitzrayim and Sinai simply states that to gain knowledge of the eternal message it would be worthwhile to understand the context in which the original words of the message were stated. Why would the need for this further study in anyway challenge the eternal validity of the Torah message?
The concern, though, may be that such a contention still dates the Torah as a work of a certain society or historical period. Considering that many if not most people will not undertake such a study of this context and only read the Torah from their own perspective, their own context, to maintain that in order to understand the Torah it is necessary to gain knowledge of that context would, invariably, mean that that Torah could not be understood by this vast array of people. The argument, though, is not that the Torah cannot in anyway be understood without an understanding of this historical context but rather that it cannot be fully understood without such an undertaking. By extension, it may mean that the fullness of Torah cannot be understood without a recognition of how human beings, over the ages, have attempted to understand it within the context of their own lives. The result is that there may be different ways of understanding the Torah based on the context of the one studying or reading the text, all of them with validity. This could even be an inherent indication of the Torah’s eternal validity. It adds to our understanding of Torah to attempt to comprehend its words within the context of ancient Egypt but it also adds to our understanding of Torah through our attempt to understand it from the context of our own society.3 The mitzvah of sotah, 4 the wayward wife may serve as a good example. Upon reading of this law from the context of our society, our initial response to this command may view it as problematic, an imposition upon women. In a discussion once, though, someone pointed out to me that from the context of the societies of antiquity this law was actually an advancement for women. A husband in ancient societies could simply execute a wife even upon solely a hint of impropriety. The sotah rules actually protected the wife. What is the true Torah perspective? Perhaps both, which we could only fully gain through an extended recognition of how Torah is perceived from the perspective of variant listeners, even over time.
There is, however, another reason we may find it difficult to perceive the Torah as considering the ancient Egyptian linguistic context and that is the connection of this context to idolatry. We may find it somewhat strange to understand the Torah as using a word within the context of its meaning within the Egyptian mythology. It is this ancient Egyptian belief system that declared that a heavy heart defined an evil person; why would the Torah thus use such a metaphor? An overriding intent of Torah is to separate the Jewish People from any connection to idolatry and now we are to accept that it would use the language of this idolatry to describe Pharaoh as evil? It may be, though, that this use of language was already so embedded in the people that the original idolatrous basis for this slang was for all intents and purposes lost. It was just the language of the time and the Torah spoke in the language of the time. How many of our phrases, our slang terms, emerge from ideas or events of which we know little if anything? How many terms do we use that if we knew from whence these terms emerged we would never use them? Such an argument, though, is most difficult to present in the context of the Torah. The mythology of the Egyptians was still very real and, if it was so, it would be clearly understood that such a phrase as a heavy heart to refer to evil had its basis in this idolatrous belief. Given the Torah’s intent to completely separate the Jewish People from any connection with idolatry it would indeed seem strange for God to use this term – unless God had a purpose in doing so. Could the use of this term be intended as a further mocking of this supposed god? Could God be indicating to us through the use of this term that it is the very desire in Pharaoh to have a light heart, to be good according to his value system, that will indicate his very evil, the heaviness of his heart?
I do not know the answer to these questions. My sole point is that we often miss much of the potential to understand the fullness of the Torah – even our ability to recognize how full the Torah can be -- because we lose sight of the importance of context in our approach to Torah. The given Torah does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the realm of the human being and thus the parameters that a human being applies in his/her attempt to understand Torah must be a part of this study. This is not to say that every parameter and/or context is to be accepted as valid. It does, though, inform us that we, our views, do affect the way we see Torah, and this may even be part of the overall Torah system.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 P. Vo'eira - Koveid Leiv Par'oh at http://nishmablog.blogspot.com/2010/12/p-voeira-koveid-leiv-paroh.html
2 Such as veyechezak in Shemot 7:13 in reference to Pharaoh’s heart becoming (or remaining) strong -- meaning stubborn -- or akasheh in Shemot 7:3 in reference to God stating that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart – meaning, again, make stubborn.
3 In a similar vein, see Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, Tradition 41:2 and my letter regarding this article in Communications, Tradition 42:2.4 See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 365
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