How much longer? — the eternal question


By Rabbi Craig Axler

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.

“How much longer?” It’s a question parents of young children often have to answer on car rides. “According to the GPS, we should be there in 129 minutes, so a little over two hours if we don’t hit any traffic.” Not a particularly satisfying answer for a restless toddler.

“How much longer?” A question on so many of our minds as we struggle to remain healthy in a terrifying pandemic. How long until we can hug those outside of our “bubble” or shop for groceries without fear? How long until vaccinations are sufficiently widespread that we can begin to establish a “new normal”? These and so many other questions are hard to answer — though we pray the answer is “soon.”

“How much longer?” is a question that occurs twice in the opening chapter of this week’s Torah portion. The narrative begins with the final three plagues — locusts, darkness and the terrible death of the firstborn.

“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, saying to him: Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘Ad Matai — How much longer will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go that they may worship Me’” [Exodus 10:3].

The question is first asked by God, challenging the seemingly all-powerful Pharaoh: How much longer will you refuse? What more do you need to know that this episode ends only one way, the way of justice and right, the way God has already decreed? Is not the destruction already ravaging Egypt enough?

Pharaoh’s actions relate directly to the charge against him: a lack of humility, an outsized sense of his own power over a situation that has been repeatedly demonstrated as not in his control. But Pharaoh, the paradigmatic autocrat, will not hear these words.

Just a few verses later, we read the second instance of the question. After describing the devastation to come with the plague of locusts, Moses and Aaron exit the palace.

Upon their leaving, “Pharaoh’s advisors said to him: ‘Ad Matai — How much longer will this one be a snare for us? Let the men go so they may worship the Eternal their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is destroyed?” [Exodus 10:7].

It is a stunning indictment of Pharaoh’s leadership, a challenge to his authority almost unheard of in this court. Commentators point out that Pharaoh’s advisors are reluctant to state the obvious while Moses is in the room, but the moment he leaves they hurl this charge at Pharaoh: Are you so removed from the experiences of your people that you will continue this losing battle against their God?

There is a linguistic ambiguity in the image the advisors use. “How much longer will this one be a snare to us?” “This one” could certainly relate to Moses, as the Hebrew’s leader, the one raised in the palace taking up the cause of the people. Perhaps they are referring to Pharaoh himself, questioning how much longer they can sustain loyalty to a ruler who cares nothing for the good of the nation.

Some commentators draw inspiration from the simple Hebrew zeh (“this”), pointing out that elsewhere it is a reference to God, as in the song the Israelites will shortly sing at the sea, “Zeh Eli VeAnveihu — This is my God whom I will glorify” [Exodus 15:2].

Ad Matai — How much longer? God willing, not much longer at all.

Rabbi Craig Axler leads Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.

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