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Pesach: a primal tale of good v evil

What lies behind the names of Moses and Pharaoh?

    Baby Moses: detail from the Szyk Haggadah
    Baby Moses: detail from the Szyk Haggadah

    The stories we regularly read and retell are ones that support what we hold most dear. They confirm our belief in the victory of right over wrong and, though there is often a heavy price to pay, the triumph of good over evil. 

    Hence the Exodus from Egypt is not just an antique tale, it is our foundational story of national identity. It tells of the epic battle between Moses and Pharaoh, the primal war of Good versus Evil — or in Hebrew, Tov versus Rah — in a surprisingly literal fashion.

    You see, Moses was actually called Tov. When he was born his mother, “looked at him and saw that he was good (tov) and hid him for three months.” (Exodus 2:2). Any mother would have hidden her son to avoid the cruel Egyptian edict condemning Israelite baby boys to death Exodus 1:22), so the tov here must be more than just good looks. The Talmud explains: “Rabbi Meir said: His name was Tov; Rabbi Judah said: His name was Tuvyah (Good God); Rabbi Nehemiah said: She foresaw that he would be a worthy prophet… And the Sages said: When Moses was born the whole house was filled with light”(Sotah 12a).

    What is more, almost every mention of tov in the book of Exodus is connected to Moses. For instance, the people complained to Moses, when the Egyptians caught up with them at the Reed Sea, saying, “It would have been more good (tov) for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Similarly, his father-in-law critiques his leadership style saying, “It is not good (tov), the thing you are doing” (Exodus 18:17). 

    In fact, the Talmud frames the culmination of the Exodus at Sinai with a fourfold aphorism of tov: “Let good come, and receive the good, from the Good, for the good ones” (Menachot 53b). This, it elaborates, means the following: Let Moses come, and receive the Torah, from God, for the Israelites.

    Now if Moses is the embodiment of tov (good), then it would be fitting that his nemesis, Pharaoh, is the embodiment of rah (evil). And, in a delightful cross-lingual wordplay, he is. The prevalent opinion of Egyptologists is that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Ramses II. The Hebrew name for the settlement area of the Israelites in Egypt, mentioned time and again, is Ra’amses (Exodus 1:11, 12:37). Ramses means “born of Ra”, Ra being the great Sun-god at the centre of ancient Egyptian worship. But in Hebrew, Ra is Rah, evil itself!   

    Pharaoh even highlights this association. Before the final plagues, he warns Moses, “Look out, for evil (rah) is before you!” (Exodus 10:10). Rashi explains, “There is a certain star named Rah (Evil), so Pharaoh said to Moses: Using astrology, I see the star rising towards you in the wilderness where you wish to go and it is an emblem of blood and slaughter!” Indeed, since the Israelites actually left Egypt in the morning, heading east, they would have met the rising blood-red sun coming up over the desert.

    Though the knowledge needed to decipher hieroglyphics was lost for centuries, until Champollion decoded the Rosetta stone in 1822, some key symbols were always recognisable. Ra was one of them, it was a circle with a dot at the centre. In Egyptian art this was depicted as a red disk-like sun signifying the “Eye of Ra”. The Egyptians associated this with the red light that appears before sunrise and with the morning star (Sirius) that heralds the Sun’s arrival. Fans (like me) of The Alan Parsons Project’s chart-topping 1982 album, Eye in the Sky, with the Eye of Ra on the cover, will certainly appreciate all this.

     In another surprising cross-lingual association, the traditional term used for the supernatural force of evil in Judaism is the ayin hara — the “evil eye”. Maybe its origin is related to the Eye of Ra. Thus the Torah characterises the primal battle of good and evil through the dramatic story of Moses challenging Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery.

    This battle was anticipated in the Garden of Eden with, “the tree of knowing good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). Accordingly, the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, sets this as a challenge for all of us: “Every person is given a choice in life: If they want to turn themselves towards a good path and be righteous, then the choice is in their hands. And if they want to turn themselves towards an evil path and be wicked, then choice is also in their hands” (Laws of Repentance 5:1-2).

    Though many argue that there is no black and white on any real issue today, I would contend that deep down, at the heart of things, we do have a profound sense of what is right and wrong. And we would do well to respect and give voice to this.

    “Said Rabbi Joshua: the evil eye, the evil inclination and hatred of people drive a person from the world” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:10). The Exodus story, that we lovingly retell every year on Seder night is an annual reminder of the primal challenge of our human experience.  

    Rabbi Dr Zarum is the dean of London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS)

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