Adrian A. Durlester

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Vayikra 5766


My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair
 -Percy Bysshe Shelley

King of Kings am I, Osymandias.
If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works".
-Generally accepted translation of the inscription on a fallen statue in the Ramesseum, Luxor, which Shelley paraphrased for his poem

Ani rishon, v'Ani akharon, umibaladai ein el-him.
I am the first and I am the last, and there is no g-d but Me.
-Isaiah 44:6b

So what do these all have in common? The plain connection should be apparent. The arrogance and haughtiness of any Egyptian Pharaoh, Shelley's ironic juxtaposition of these words in his poem, and G''d's simple statement that G''d was here first and will be here long after we're gone.

The full text of Shelley's poem makes clear the irony through the description of the setting:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As to the quote from Isaiah, it is from the haftarah for our parasha, Vayikra. The parasha describes, at great length, ritual sacrifices. In the haftarah, the people are chastised for abandoning those very practices. And in another connection, which the rabbis really seized upon, the parasha speaks of the obligation of one who has witnessed, or in this case, heard, a public blashpemy, that person is obligated to testify. If they do not testify, then they bear guilt for which they must confess and offer sacrifices. And in our haftarah, just a few verses after the quote we have used, is another famous quote:

You are My witnesses. Is there any g-d then, but Me?"  (Isaiah 44:8)

We are obligated to be G''d's witnesses, and when we fail in that obligation, we incur guilt. In these days and times, we may have disagreements about what Torah teaches and what G''d expects us to do, but the obligation to be G''d's witnesses is as strong as ever. We may even disagree on just exactly what or who G''d is, or if G''d truly exists, or if G''d is just a metaphor. Whatever your understanding, if we are not G''d's witnesses, then G''d is not.*

OK. So what's the other quote, the direct rendering of the text upon which Shelley based his poem? What is its connection. Aha.

Pesach time is approaching. One of the "major characters" in the maggid of Pesach is Pharaoh. Which Pharaoh, we don't know. Traditional scholarship had once held to the belief that this Pharaoh was Ramesses II (aka Ramses II, aka User-maat-re Setep-en-re, which, poorly transliterated into Greek comes out-in English transliteration-Osymandias.) While most scholars no longer believe that Ramesses II could have been the Pharaoh of the biblical exodus, the traditional understanding remains popular. (User-maat-re Setep-en-re is part of the throne name of Ramesses II, of the 19th dynasty, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1212 BCE, or 1290 to 1224 BCE, depending upon which chronology you accept.) Ramesses II is also known as Ramesses the great, as his reign was quite remarkable, producing many monuments, and having great prosperity (not to mention his 8 wives.)

Yet how much like the biblical Pharaoh of the exodus is this Ramesses II, this Osymandias appears, if he is like the one in Shelley's poem, the one self-described in the inscription found at Luxor. His statues and temples and obelisks have mostly cracked and fallen or even disappeared. Ironically, his name does indeed still live on-as his works have lasted long enough for archaeologists to find them. That's a pretty darn long time. About as long as Judaism, in some form, has been around. Seems we've fared a bit better than Osymandias, though we've suffered from far more than sand withering us away to ruins.

Wow. 3000-3500 years. Pretty amazing. (And remember that Egypt's first dynasty dates back to 2920 BCE, another 1600 years or so.) Pretty impressive. Look upon our works and despair.

Hardly. G''d was around long before, and will be around long after we're gone.

Provided, that is, G''d has someone around to be G''d's witnesses, for, as it was written:

"If 'you are My witnesses,' then I am G''d; but if you are not My witnesses, then, so to speak, I am not G''d." Sifre to Deuteronomy 346.) *

Osymandias' name still lives, because we were around to read his inscriptions. When we're gone, who will remember Osymandias? Yet Osymandias only thought he was G''d. what about "the real thing?"

So which is it? G''d was and will be around even when we aren't here to be G''d's witnesses, or we are necessary for G''d to be G''d?

Now that's something to ponder.

Shabbat Shalom,


*-(I'm indebted today to Professor Baruch Levine and others who contributed to the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, for in remarking upon this connection, they helped me to finally determine the citation for this quote, which is one of my favorites, which I first encountered in the Reform High Holy Days machzor, Gates of Repentance.)

©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some Previous Musings on the Same Parasha

Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev

Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...

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