Bo: the malevolent synecdoche

synecdoche“How long shall this one be a snare to us? (Exodus 10:7)

This comes from the part of this week’s parasha, Bo, where Pharaoh’s advisors are telling him to let the Israelites go already; they say they want to go out into the wilderness to make a festival to God, but we know that’s Moses’ ruse to get the people out.

Something caught my eye.

“This one” zeh, singular. Who is the “zeh”, the “this?” What one person are they talking about? Are the advisors thinking that only Moses himself was the problem? They must be seeing this one man as the problem, it seems.  Ibn Ezra poses a similar question, (12th c Spain) asking if the word ”zeh” refers to either this thing ([Pharoah’s]) refusal to let the people go) or this person (Moses.) But he doesn’t answer his own question.

I learned a new word the other day: synecdoche, which describes a word that is a part of something but used to mean the whole. (I’d known what it was, of course, but hadn’t heard the official grammatical name for it!) The Egyptian advisors only saw an individual man, a minor threat, so they used the single “zeh.” But as Ibn Ezra suggested, it could have been a much larger thing – Pharoah’s stubborn insistence that the Israelites remain his slaves. For better or worse, both Moses and Pharaoh respectively, saw this as a much bigger issue, one with greater ramifications, with much more at stake.

Pharaoh was threatened by Moses, and all the Israelites. We know this from the opening verses of Exodus – the people had become much too numerous and Pharaoh was afraid they would rise up against him along with other enemies. So, he enslaved the population. For Pharaoh, the synecdoche of equating Moses with the entire people was about being threatened. One man symbolized an entire dangerous community, whom he thought was poised to bring down his authoritarian rule. We see this in today’s headlines, when one or two examples of an unfortunate, even tragic, event are manipulated into being representative of an entire community. The part becomes the whole, but not in a good way.

Moses represented something else – a synecdoche that was based on justice and freedom and human dignity. In short, Moses stood for the entire people, but he represented a positive force. He didn’t want to destroy Pharaoh’s entire regime; he just wanted to take his people out of slavery, leading them towards something better.

The names Moses and Pharaoh are both synecdoche’s ,each one a “zeh”, each one a part representing a whole, but each coming from such different places, with such different motives and goals. How are we to tell the difference between one “zeh” and another “zeh?” We can look at the motives behind the representation. Does the small part bring down the entire whole, the way Pharoah does, or the way some current leaders do? Or does it life up the group? Is the “zeh” coming from hate and intolerance, misleading others? Or does it inspire and raise up?

Just one word of a very old Torah text can illuminate some very contemporary challenges. Beware the malevolent synecdoche.





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