What was Pharaoh thinking?

by | Jan 30, 2017 | Torah Thought

It’s interesting to reflect on the Torah portion, Parshat Bo, while reading Alan Morinis’s book, Everyday Holiness, in preparation for Tidewater Together. This year, the series of programs focuses on the theory and practice of mussar, a 200-year-old system of Jewish teachings. Morinis, who will speak at each Tidewater Together event, posits that people can use the teachings to develop positive “soul-traits” that, when practiced, empower personal growth and spiritual enlightenment.

Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) covers the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, slaying of the firstborn) Egypt suffers before the Israelites are liberated from Egypt, the instructions for Passover, and the Israelites’ final preparations to depart. In the middle of all this, as his own son dies and the wails of bereaved Egyptians rise around him, he calls for Moses and Aaron and says, “Rise, go out from among my people, you and the Israelites! Go worship Hashem as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and go! And bless me also!” (Exodus 12:31-32)

Uveirachtem gam-oti, “bless me also,” comes off as a pretty chutzpahdik thing for Pharaoh to say, especially in the plural—he wants all the Israelites to bless him. Why should they give a blessing to a man who held them in cruel captivity for years and who put Egypt through 10 deadly plagues before liberating them? The request looks different, though, when seen through the eyes of mussar.

The first soul-trait Morinis discusses in detail in Everyday Holiness is anavah, humility. While we tend to think of humility as humbleness or meekness, Morinis explains humility as making space: the ability to take up only as much space as one needs (and not less, which is self-debasement and not useful). Before the 10th plague, Pharaoh had projected nothing but arrogance, taking up all the space he could grab with his lofty position as ruler. After the plague of darkness, when he had rescinded his permission to the Israelites to leave, he warned Moses and Aaron that if he saw them again, they would die. But the slaying of the firstborn deflates Pharaoh. He must withdraw his threat to Moses and Aaron by summoning them, and asking for their blessing is, in the words of the chumash Etz Hayim, “an ultimate humbling act.”

Some commentators do find Pharaoh’s plea for a blessing self-serving; for example, Rashi (1040-1104) wrote that Pharaoh asked for a blessing only so that he wouldn’t be killed with the other first-born Egyptians. But other rabbis attribute more generous motives to Pharaoh’s request. Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch, writing in 19th-century Germany, sees the blessing Pharaoh wants as one that will restore Egypt, battered by the plagues, to health. Similarly, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), a 13th-century philosopher, looked through Pharaoh’s eyes to see a blessing for himself to be a blessing for his country. Pharoah regretted what he had done to the Jews and also saw the pain he had caused his subjects; he wanted to make space for God’s blessing on his land.

Another soul-trait, compassion, comes into play when considering the activities of the Israelites on that terrible night in Egypt. The Bible tells us what the Israelites were instructed to do that night, but not how they felt. One can hope that they, too, heard the cries of the Egyptian families who had lost loved ones and felt their grief, even though many Egyptians had been their oppressors. I believe it’s not only the suffering that the nation of Israel has experienced over the centuries that makes us serve the cause of social justice in disproportionate numbers, but also our understanding of what other tribes have withstood.

As someone who explores Torah with others, I will be interested to learn more about mussar, especially how it relates to Scripture. I hope to see you at Tidewater Together!

— Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah