D’var Torah: We Have Much More in Common with Pharaoh Than We Think
The lessons of Passover are numerous and often discussed. This foundational story of our people connects us to God and to the idea that we should be supportive and sympathetic to those who are oppressed. Most of us view the story through the eyes of the Israelites and draw our lessons from those experiences. Yet, for the most part, Jews are not powerless in the world today, there is a State of Israel, and Jews have significant influence in many countries. Perhaps this Passover we should look at the Pharaohs and how they responded to the plight of the Israelites. Isn’t our power and social status more like Pharaoh than the slaves?
The Haggadah has little to say about the two Pharaohs mentioned at the beginning of Exodus, so we need to turn instead to the Passover story as it told in the Torah. Upon doing this, one could argue that both Pharaohs failed the test of leadership; they led their people and themselves down an avoidable road to disaster.
In the first test of leadership, at the beginning of the book of Shemot, Pharaoh is afraid that the Israelites, who have been living among the Egyptians, have become too numerous and are a threat if Egypt is invaded and the Israelites join the invaders. Although there is no evidence that this would happen, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and subjects them to harsh labor. His hope is that the Israelites will feel dejected and will stop having children. Instead, the opposite occurs. This Pharaoh then doubles down on his evil ways and actively works to kill the newborn Israelite males so that the Israelites will assimilate or die off. This strategy doesn’t work either and this Pharaoh passes away. What other choices could Pharaoh have made? The Israelites and Egyptians were on good terms from the time of Joseph. Pharaoh let irrational fear lead him to create a problem where none existed. He just as easily could have built stronger relations with the Israelites that would benefitted both groups.
A new Pharaoh takes the throne and the Israelites groan under continued oppression. Any hope that a new generation of Egyptian leadership might try new tactics is quickly dashed. This is the moment that God takes notice.
We now come to the second time that Pharaoh could have averted disaster for himself and his people but chooses not to. Moshe is instructed to go to Pharaoh to ask that the people be given a break and allowed to worship God in the wilderness for three days. I have often wondered if this was a genuine offer or not. When God instructs Moshe to do this, God tells him that Pharaoh will not comply. Is this because God is taking away Pharaoh’s free choice or is it that God just understands how people in power react and behave? Let’s choose the second reason in this discussion.
I always like to think about how the story could have gone but doesn’t. If I put myself in Pharaoh’s shoes, would I have agreed to Moshe’s demand? As a Pharaoh, I have not been able to control the population growth of a large foreign group; I have enjoyed the fruits of the labor of this group; and I worry that this group might not return if it leaves the immediate area. Perhaps I would ask for assurances or enter into negotiations. Pharaoh, instead, immediately sees this as a power struggle with God. He must assert his power to quash any idea that threatens him. Even as plague after plague happens, Pharaoh tries to assert his power and control until he loses the thing most dear to him, his son.
There are two major lessons for free people who exercise power in the world. First, while a fear of truly dangerous things can keep us safe, we must safeguard against irrational fear, which can lead to immoral actions and disastrous results. We know all too well that evil can be rationalized. Additionally, seeing everything as a power struggle can lead to dangerous conflicts. Pharaoh saw the Israelites’ request to leave to worship God as a threat to his power. He could not understand that this was a need of the people. If Pharaoh had understood this, could he have negotiated a settlement that would have worked for him too?
Second, when people are afraid and/or have tremendous power, it is harder for them to feel empathy. The first Pharaoh cannot remember his positive relationship with individuals like Joseph and now sees the Israelites as a foreign horde to be feared. He has to dehumanize them and enslave them rather than see that they want to be part of Egyptian society. The second Pharaoh can only see things in terms of power and threats. He cannot empathize with the Israelites’ plight or understand that a small concession to the Israelites might actually enhance his influence over them.
When taking action based on fear and preservation of power, it is all too easy to focus on oneself. It often makes one blind both to the truth and the ability to see the other person’s perspective. In our lives, there are valid things to fear and there are times when our power is challenged. Because we are so privileged, we need to take extra care to ensure that we don’t lose our ability to see truth or to empathize. It is uncomfortable to think that we have things in common with a Pharaoh, but this Passover it may be valuable to view the story through that lens. Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!