In this week’s parshah, Bnei Yisrael worship the golden calf. Given the events of the past few parshas—the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the miracles of food, water and shelter, the revelation at Sinai—few might have seen this coming. But, Rashi claims, at least one person did: Pharaoh. That’s right: according to Rashi, Pharaoh predicted, all the way back during the ten plagues, that Bnei Yisrael would succumb to idolatry upon leaving his country.
It’s a fascinating claim—but what’s behind it? That’s our question this week. Attached, you’ll find a source sheet on the topic, with lecture notes in the footnotes to guide you through the material. Here, to get you started, are the first few paragraphs (simply copied and pasted from those footnotes):
Before the plague of locusts, Pharaoh considers granting Moshe’s request to let Bnei Yisrael serve Hashem in the wilderness. But when Moshe insists that the entire nation shall go—children included—Pharaoh refuses: “So he [Pharaoh] said to them, “So may the Lord be with you, just as I will let you and your young children out. See that evil is before your faces.”
It is difficult to decipher the plain sense of Pharaoh’s comment, “See evil is before your faces” – “ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם.” Rashi cites a medrash which connects the Hebrew word ra’ah, “evil,” to the Egyptian god “Ra.” On this reading, Pharaoh’s claim to Moshe is: “’Through my astrologers, I can see the star [=Ra] ascending toward you in the desert [where you would like to go], and that is a sign of blood and slaughter.’” In other words, Pharaoh is telling Moshe that if Bnei Yisrael do go out to the wilderness to worship Hashem, they’ll end up being killed. And the medrash goes on to identify the precise point in Biblical history at which Pharaoh’s prediction almost came true: when Hashem threatened to destroy them for worshiping the golden calf.
So the medrash is telling us, in effect, that Pharaoh predicted Israel’s downfall at the incident of the golden calf—a wild claim! And, in support of this contention, our medrash notes that the term “רעה,” “evil,” which Pharaoh uses during the plague of locusts, appears again in high concentrations during the sin of the golden calf: “Moses said: ‘Why should the Egyptians boast, ‘He took them out to evil [ברעה]…;’” “The Lord relented from the evil [רעה] which He had planned to mete unto His nation…”
But is this the only term which connects Pharaoh’s protest to the episode of the golden calf? Maybe. Or, maybe the connection Rashi is alluding to here actually runs much deeper than he lets on explicitly. To find out, let’s carefully read the golden calf episode, and see if any of it sounds familiar…