JWR Outlook



Jewish World Review April 12, 2001 / 19 Nissan, 5761


The Pharaoh fantasy

By Rabbi Yisroel Miller

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ABOUT fifteen years ago I gave a lecture on the subject, "The Wickedness of Pharaoh." I don't recall the exact points I made, but one of my listeners came over afterwards and said, "When you were describing Pharaoh, I know you really had in mind So-and-so (here he named a prominent community leader)--and your description was perfect."

That person was very much mistaken as to my intent, but he had a point. In a sense, all great stories speak to us about ourselves; classic villains are those whose villainy teaches me not so much about Mr. So-and-So, but about the problem of confronting villainy within myself.

The Torah is also a story, a true story and the greatest story of all. One of the Torah's outstanding villains, who is therefore by definition an outstanding teacher, is Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The Torah gives Pharaoh pages upon pages of publicity, quoting entire speeches of his; because, as Maimonides wrote, Pharaoh's life is the classic textbook example to teach us the workings of the evil inclination in a human being.

Several Pharaohs are mentioned in the Torah, men who lived at different times. It appears that the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash had a tradition that these rulers were all cut from the same cloth, all sharing similar mental attitudes and outlooks on life. This would explain why we find the Sages speaking of different Pharaohs as if they were the same person. For example, the Sages taught that because Pharaoh honored our father Abraham, he was therefore granted the honor to enslave Abraham's descendants (Talmud, Tractate Sotah 46b). It appears unlikely that the same person ruled Egypt from Abraham's day to the time of Israel's bondage; but the spiritual personality was similar, and they are therefore treated as one. This would also explain why the Torah calls them all "Pharaoh" rather than by individual names: to show us that for the lesson they may all be considered one and the same.

What lessons does Pharaoh teach? G-d says (Exodus 10): "Tell it over, in the ears of your son and your grandson, how I mocked Egypt, and the signs I placed among them, and you shall know that I am G-d" (translation based on the insights of the 11th century master commentator, Rashi). This means that we are obligated to pass on to our children not only how G-d rescued us with His miracles, but also how He mocked Egypt.

Of course, we cannot transmit this message unless we first comprehend it ourselves. What is the meaning of G-d mocking Egypt? And why should the Creator mock any of His creatures? As King David said, "His mercy is on all His creations." Doesn't that include Pharaoh and the people of Egypt?

Before the plague of hailstones, Moses warned: "Now send messengers and gather in your cattle--and all that you have in the field; any man or beast found in the field that will not be brought indoors--the hail will fall on them and they will die."

For Moses to give such advance warning and detailed advice was unusual. But Egypt's reaction was even more unusual: "Any servant of Pharaoh who feared the word of G-d gathered his servants and cattle indoors. But those who disregarded the word of G-d left servants and cattle in the field," where they were all killed by the hailstones as Moses prophesied.

Most people read that section of the Torah without astonishment, because most people don't stop to think, to realize that the Torah is describing an actual event which took place, with real people. Imagine the reality of it, picture Pharaoh's servants in your mind, try to put yourself in their place. This Hebrew Moses, appears at the palace and commands in the name of G-d: "Let my people go--or else." You are skeptical, and even after Moses transforms a stick into a snake, you adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

Moshe announces that he is going to change the Nile River, Egypt's lifeline, to blood--and it happens. He then proclaims a plague of frogs, far beyond any such plague that has ever been seen before--and it comes. It also leaves, exactly when Moses says it will. Then he foretells plagues of lice, wild beasts, animal disease and painful boils, and they all come true, precisely as foretold, six times out of six. Now Moses warns you: Tomorrow comes the hail; take in your servants and cattle, or they will all die.

Under the circumstances, could anyone have been so crazy to leave animals and people outdoors? No matter how skeptical you may be, even if you're from Missouri, this man has been right on the money six times in a row--at least credit him with a maybe. Yet the Torah tells us, only those who feared the word of G-d, only the "religious" Egyptians, brought in their possessions. What does piety have to do with it? And how could the "irreligious" Egyptians be such fools?

Another question: After the plague of darkness, Pharaoh finally makes a serious offer: "Go serve G-d, only your sheep and cattle need be left behind." One might explain that Pharaoh wanted the animals as collateral to ensure that Israel would return, but that seems rather farfetched. A slave escaping the tortures of Egypt would not have been tempted to return for the sake of a cow.

Strange as Pharaoh's offer was, even stranger was Moses' response: "You will also give into our hands offerings," i.e., not only will we take every animal we have, but Pharaoh, you must give us extras to offer to G-d! We can understand that Moses did not wish to accept Pharaoh's offer; but why did he suddenly come up with a new demand, never before mentioned, that Pharaoh must donate sacrificial offerings of his own? When Pharaoh is finally beginning to give in, for Moshe to tighten the screws on him does not seem right.

As I heard from my rabbi, to truly understand Pharaoh and his people, we must go back to an earlier Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt in the time of Joseph. When Joseph's Pharaoh dreamt his famous dream prophesying seven years of plenty and seven of famine, the Torah tells us: "Pharaoh was dreaming and behold, he was standing by the river" (Genesis 44:1). The Hebrew words "al hayeor," by the river, literally mean "on the river," on top of it. The Midrash says that in this case, the literal translation is the correct one: Pharaoh in his dream saw himself walking on water, actually standing on the Nile.

We know that ancient Egypt worshipped the Nile as a god, yet Pharaoh was standing on top of it. The Midrash comments: "The wicked stand upon their gods, the righteous have their G-d upon themselves."

My rabbi explained: One way to gain insight into what the mass of humanity believes and feels is to study its billboard and magazine advertising. Advertising themes which are recycled again and again are those themes which experience has proven successful, messages which strike responsive chords in the hearts of millions of people. And if we consider the tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising religion, one central theme stands out: "Turn to G-d--it will make you feel better."

"The family that prays together, stays together"; "Something good is going to happen to you"; Catholic schools-- schools with a heart"; "Back to the Bible"--with a background picture of smiling parents, smiling children and a (smiling) family dog. Leaving aside questions of whether those slogans contain kernels of truth, the core of the message, its fundamental theme, is: "Got problems? Want to be happier? Try G-d." Just like an ad for aspirin or a stomach antacid.

The Creator as painkiller or smile producer--that sells. But the idea of serving G-d, that I am here to make Him happy rather than the other way around, that idea is foreign to our culture. "The wicked stand upon their gods." They may well believe in a god, they may even be very "religious"; but their god is beneath them, there to serve them, to answer their prayers and to add a touch of sentiment to joyous and solemn occasions.

The only god Pharaoh truly worships is Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh says "The Nile is mine, and I have made myself."

This emotional attitude, whether we place G-d above us or beneath our feet, cannot be measured by a person's public statements, and not by the degree of commitment one has to the mechanical observance of Jewish laws. Sometimes, even fiery devotion to Jewish laws can be rooted in an ego which shouts to the world: "Look at me! I have G-d on my side." (There is a world of difference between "my G-d" and "My G-d.")

A learned and pious rabbi, an alumnus of one of Europe's great yeshivos, returned to his alma mater for a visit. The yeshivah's spiritual supervisor asked how things were going, and the rabbi replied: "In spiritual things (Torah study and Jewish laws), praise G-d, all is well. In material things (earning a living) things could be a bit better."

Afterwards, the spiritual supervisor repeated the conversation, and he explained what the former student really meant: "'In spiritual things, thank G-d,' meaning I am doing my part; but 'in material things,' the Almighty's department, He is falling down on the job." The most pious people can fall into the trap of viewing themselves as doing their Creator a favor with their piety, and then wondering why the Creator does not show proper gratitude. With that sort of attitude, one has no true relationship with G-d to begin with, and it is not surprising that such people often grow bitter as the years go on.

When G-d first sent Moses to Pharaoh, all he asked for was to let Israel out for three days. Moshe however, did not say, "Let my people go," as in the King James Version. He demanded one thing more: "Send out my people"; you, Pharaoh, must yourself send them out; you, too, must agree to do the Will of G-d. Our ancestors could have escaped from Egypt during any one of the Ten Plagues, while Egypt was trapped in its suffering, and G-d could have continued the plague until Israel reached the Promised Land or even forever. But G-d desired more than this, that Pharaoh should also answer Amen; to admit that everyone must accept the Will of the Creator, even Egyptian kings.

To this Pharaoh answered: "Who is G-d that I must listen to His voice?" Pharaoh did not deny G-d's existence, he could always accept the presence of one more deity. But "that I must listen, " that G-d tells me what to do? That he refused to accept.

The Ten Plagues were more than an awesomely spectacular deliverance of the Jewish nation. They were a public demonstration that, ultimately, even Pharaoh must look upon the truth; even Pharaoh must say: "Go, as you spoke, and bless me also." In the end, even Pharaoh admitted that he cannot live--no one can live--without the blessing of G-d.

Once we recognize the dynamics in the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh, we can understand Pharaoh's offer to let Israel go if their animals stayed, and why Moses countered by insisting that Pharaoh himself must contribute animals. Since keeping the Jewish cows would not make the slaves return to bondage, why was it so important to Pharaoh that they remain behind?

The answer is that it was a symbol. If Pharaoh can keep something, anything at all, even a cow, he will then be able to say (at least to himself): "I and the Jewish G-d made a deal, we negotiated as equals; I gave Him the people, and I took the cattle." But if Pharaoh can say that, he negates the whole point of the Ten Plagues, which is that G-d's Will is all there is. Moshe therefore had to make the point by now demanding more cattle, that Pharaoh must also give offerings, to demonstrate that G-d alone is the Sovereign, and with the Sovereign one does not make deals.

The fundamental lesson is the same, whether we speak about Pharaoh in ancient Egypt or about his 20th-century totalitarian counterparts; or even about the Pharaoh who resides within ourselves, even the observant Jew who--on the emotional level, where we really live--refuses to acknowledge G-d as Sovereign over his or her own personal life. The great tragedy is that it is living a lie. Whether or not we like it, and whether or not we acknowledge it, the fact remains that G-d is the Sovereign, and the only true reality is His Will. And therefore, whether or not we admit it, the only way to sanity is to strive to do His Will; because the alternative, trying to get along without Him, is a delusion, life in a fantasy world.

When Pharaoh--any Pharaoh--says, "Who is G-d that I should listen? I don't want Him running my life"; then the Creator's response may be: "Very well, see if you can get along without Me." And that, my rabbi explained, is what the Torah calls "mocking"; that the Creator allows the conceited fool to discover the sheer terror of trying to make himself into a god. The normal way to gain entrance to a building is through the door. You insist on attempting to smash your head through the brick wall? The Almighty will not stand in your way.

Pharaoh gives in to no one, because, after all, he's made himself into a god. He loses his livestock and all his crops. His starving, impoverished, tortured nation stands on the brink of complete ruin. Pharaoh, though, remains king in his fantasy land, for he still expects to force G-d to the bargaining table to make deals!

This explains the insane reaction of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to Moses' warning of the plague of hail. "Any man or beast found in the field . . . the hail will fall on them and they will die!" How could anyone take the chance of leaving them outdoors?

But the act of bringing in cattle and servants meant: "You know, we do have to listen to Moses, there is indeed no alternative but to obey the word of G-d. And just as He has forced us to do this, He can demand other things in the future. He could even demand of us that we accept the truth, that He and He alone is G-d!" As every psychiatrist knows, if someone wants badly enough not to hear a certain truth, that person will not hear it, no matter what it costs him in the long run. Egyptians who had not learned reverence for the word of G-d left everything outdoors, because they preferred to lose everything, just to keep their fantasy intact.

To sum up, we have gained some insight into the dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh, that its ultimate purpose was not only to free Israel, but also, as the Torah says, "and Egypt shall know that I am G-d." This explains why Moses demanded that Pharaoh send Israel out, and not merely allow them to leave. It explains why, when Pharaoh tried to use livestock as a bargaining chip, Moses countered by insisting that Pharaoh personally donate sacrifices. It explains the Divine "mockery," that G-d gives the wicked freedom to butt their heads against walls in their fantasy worlds of attempting to oppose the Divine Will. And it explains the emotional state which led Egypt to choose to leave men and beasts outdoors to die, rather than acknowledge that there is no alternative to submission to the power of G-d.

So, we have learned a couple of things about Pharaoh. But Pharaoh has been dead a long time now, and the Torah is not really interested in ancient history. The main purpose of the story is that, as Maimonides wrote, Pharaoh is a classic illustration of the workings of the evil inclination; meaning, Pharaoh's life story is intended to teach us how we go through life fooling ourselves. With that in mind, let us take a look at modern Pharaohs: Jewish kings--even Orthodox Jewish kings--and queens.

The basic challenge of faith is not whether to believe in the existence of G-d. The challenge is: Do I accept the reality that G-d is above me? Or do I pretend that I am god and I expect the world to worship me, a world of fantasy and great heartache? Edgar Allan Poe described the moral test very well, when he explained his own atheism. He said: "How can I believe in a G-d Who is greater than me !" Well said--and that egotistical auto-idolatry is the key to understanding the terrible misery which filled Poe's life, not to mention the lives of so many contemporary Hollywood film stars.

Most of us are not as blunt as Poe. Instead:

Those and similar questions, which many people ask themselves with real anger in their voices, are not dispassionate inquiries into human behavior or the nature of coincidence. They are rhetorical outbursts against the reality of the world we live in, a free-floating hostility against the idea that G-d made the world according to His Will and not my own. I, Pharaoh, don't need to put up with noisy children or dolts who dare to drive slowly in the fast lane! Why isn't the world being run according to my desires? "Who is G-d, that I should listen to His voice!?"

Once people place themselves at the center of the universe, they are then forced to mentally reconstruct the world to fit in with the make-believe reality of their imagination. It is therefore quite understandable that if you inform such people of the truth, they mightily resent it. Not only are your words an implied criticism, but you are threatening to blow down their whole house of cards.

When Moses first came to Pharaoh, the king's response was: "Make the work more difficult for the slaves!" Much later--even after Pharaoh had come to admit that G-d is the righteous One--when Moses warned of the 10th Plague, Pharaoh said: "If you come back again, I'll kill you." Pharaoh had such a vehement reaction because by then Pharaoh knew that Moses was right. Once he began to realize that even he must obey the Voice of G-d, he did everything he could to drown out the Voice, in the vain hope that he would not have to hear it at all.

If you offer friendly, constructive criticism, and your listener takes offense, responds with verbal abuse or even threatens you with death--then take it as a compliment. It means that your words have hit home.

Just as Egypt let their people die in the fields rather than bring them in and admit that G-d is in charge, so too, most of us will act in a similar manner rather than surrender whatever prejudice is most ingrained in our twisted view of the world. To mention the example I heard from my rabbi:

A typical American Jewish married couple are the proud parents of a 12-year-old daughter. They are not at all Jewishly observant, but they want their child to grow up happy and healthy, and to marry a Jew. You point out to them what is happening in the public schools--drugs, teenage pregnancy, all sorts of horrors--and you also cite the statistics on the probabilities of today's Jewish children intermarrying. Finally, you suggest: "Why not enroll your daughter in a Jewish day school? Even if you're not religious, do it to protect the child, as a kind of insurance that she should not be ruined!"

And the Jewish father smiles and says: "I'm not worried. I know my daughter. She'll be okay." One might wonder how the man could be so naive. But this same man is not naive when it comes to his business or his stock portfolio, and he would not dream of putting his life savings into an investment which might just possibly collapse. Why is it that only with his own child is he so trusting, and willing to take such risks?

My rabbi explained: Even if the father is willing to examine the problem intellectually, on the emotional level he refuses to consider it at all. He doesn't want to enter the world of reality; because reality might force him not only to agree with you and enroll his child in the day school, but it might push him to bring Jewish observance into his home as well, changing his entire life. One man who became interested in Judaism as an adult told me that if he continues to attend Torah classes he will have to become observant, he sees it's the Truth--so he stopped attending classes.

The famous showman P.T. Barnum once approached a criminal who was sentenced to hang and offered a good price for the man's suit, to display it in Barnum's museum. The criminal sold the suit, but since he needed something to wear until the execution, Barnum bought him another set of clothes. The condemned man looked at his new suit and complained: "This is cheap quality; it won't last!" As the ethics teachers said, about all of us: "The inevitability of death should make penitents of us all, but it is a reality we refuse to accept. Deep down inside ourselves, we believe there is some sort of "a death club," and we do not plan to become members.

In 1962, sociologist Charles Liebman published one of the first studies made to determine how many Orthodox Jews live in the United States. For purposes of his study he had to define what is an "Orthodox" Jew, and he settled on Sabbath observance as the most practical indicator. However, he wrote that, in his opinion, the truest criterion of Orthodoxy is not Sabbath alone, but observance of the laws of the ritual bath and family purity. The reason for this, he explained, is that the non-Orthodox married couple cannot imagine that Judaism should interfere with their most private relationship, while the truly Orthodox couple cannot imagine that Judaism would refrain from guiding them in their most private relationship.

The test of whether we place G-d above our heads, or whether we choose to stand on top of Him, is perhaps centered not on how many Jewish laws we do, but rather on how we view those laws we do not do. If we are lax in performing a Jewish law and we say that we're lazy, or weak, and must do better in the future, then we have at least placed G-d above us. We may have positioned Him so far above us that we seldom see Him, or even stop to look up, but at least He's there. If, however, we view certain Jewish laws as antiquated or extreme or otherwise irrelevant--whether or not we express that view in words-- then even those laws we do perform are very likely merely another part of the Pharaoh fantasy: My G-d, and He knows His place, safely underneath my feet.

In all the spiritual delusion and self-destruction caused by people insisting on making themselves into gods, the most poignant aspect of all the misery is that it is so unnecessary. The refusal to submit to G-d is so often based on a fear of losing personal freedom, or a feeling that accepting G-d's Will means forfeiting happiness, while the truth is the exact opposite. It is those of us inside the fantasy who live in fear; fear of reality, fear of facing ourselves and the fear that comes from being alone in the universe, without G-d giving you support from Above.

This, too, we learn from Pharaoh. From the beginning of our acquaintance with him, what is the mighty king of Egypt thinking about? "Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is larger and more powerful than us" (Exodus 1:8); they threaten us. Israel had no desire to conquer Egypt, and the only menace that existed was in Pharaoh's imagination. But if someone's world is not held together by the reality of G-d, if you live life trapped inside the boundaries of your imagination, then every outsider is a threat, every person who is different from the familiar is perceived as a danger.

In the course of their many talks, Pharaoh at one point told Moses and Aaron: "See, there is [ra'ah] evil (or: harm) in front of you" (Exodus 10:10). The simple explanation is that Pharaoh is accusing them of evil intent, or that they are stirring up only harm for themselves by attempting to rebel. But the Midrash provides another interpretation, as follows:

There is a star in the sky named Ra-ah (Harm). Pharaoh said: "My knowledge of astrology tells me that when your people will leave Egypt to enter the wilderness, this star, Ra-ah, which signifies blood and death, will rise in front of you." You are doomed to die if you go, so what's the sense of trying to leave at all?

The Midrash goes on to say that when Israel worshipped the Golden Calf and G-d thought of eliminating us, Moses prayed: "Egypt will say that G-d took Israel out towards the star Ra'ah (Harm), and that is why they died." When Moshe presented that argument, G-d forgave them.

The Midrash continues by saying that instead of the blood of death caused by the star, G-d gave us the blood of the covenant of circumcision. After the nation entered the Land of Israel and was circumcised, Scripture says: "I have removed the degradation of Egypt," that Egypt had said you would be destroyed by the star.

How shall we understand this Midrash? According to the well-known opinion of Maimonides, that belief in astrology is foolish and not in keeping with Torah tradition, the Midrash must be allegorical and never intended to be taken literally. However, even according to those Torah opinions which do consider certain astrological study to be valid, this story is still difficult to comprehend. Even if stargazing can predict future events, do stars themselves have the power to wipe out a nation? If Israel sins and G-d proclaims that He is punishing them for the Golden Calf, why should Egypt believe that the star did it? And what is this transformation of the blood of the star into the blood of the covenant of circumcision?

Pharaoh had refused to submit to G-d, he wished to be the god himself. But hidden inside every person who worships himself or herself is the knowledge that their god is very weak, and subject to the whims of luck or circumstance. If we study the lives of history's most powerful figures, it is astonishing how many of them believed in a mystical fate or luck or even astrology--Napoleon, Hitler, Generals George Paten and Douglas MacArthur, to name only a few.

Pharaoh was saying: Moses and Aaron, perhaps you will succeed in escaping from my power, but you cannot escape fate. None of us can. You will follow G-d? It is too difficult, human beings are too frail. You will surely sin, and you are destined to be destroyed.

And when our ancestors did indeed sin, Moses argued in prayer: Was Pharaoh right, after all? Is humanity truly destined to fail, and die, time after time, and remain an eternal prisoner of circumstance? If we cannot hope to overcome our weaknesses, does it make sense to expect us even to make the attempt?

And G-d forgave us the sin, and gave us the law of circumcision. The covenant of circumcision is a powerful symbol: Just as the body can be changed, so too can the soul. We are not trapped by circumstance, we are not compelled to give in to every bodily desire and temptation. With G-d's aid, we can overcome, and we can make it to the Promised Land where that covenant of circumcision took place. The righteous have G-d above them, and with G-d above there is always hope.


Rabbi Yisroel is a noted educator, lecturer and author of among other titles, What's Wrong With Being Happy?, from where this essay was excerpted. Send your comment by clicking here.

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