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Learning from Pharaoh

01/07/2021 05:19:51 PM


This week, we begin a new chapter in the life of our state and our country. Many have commented eloquently on the crisis we have weathered and the challenges still ahead. The Joint statement of the Conservative movement reflects some important thoughts on the state of our country. This Friday night as part of our Shabbat service, (available via drive-in (sign up here) and our usual Zoom options), we will have the opportunity for some special prayers and reflections. This week, we also begin a new book of the Bible - the book of Exodus, which gives us insight, not only into the history of the Jewish people, but perhaps also into the events and trends leading to this week.

This week in the Torah, we read a story of a Pharaoh seeking to cement his own rule. He is not happy with the numbers he is seeing: “the Israelites are too numerous for us.” He begins with words of demonization of the Israelites. Words of incitement, repeated with enough frequency and fervency, inevitably lead to violence. He himself issues the command that Israelite children be thrown into the river. We have witnessed in a very real way how irresponsible and incendiary words can escalate to violence and death.

The first sign of hope in the story is the two “midwives of the Israelites.” Pharaoh demands that they kill the Israelite boys. The midwives refuse with a mixture of courage and subterfuge. While the classic view is that these were Israelite women (perhaps even Moses’ own mother and sister), there are clues in the text that these were actually Egyptian women, going against their own leader. To side with one’s own people against an improper or unjust or improper  external request is not particularly remarkable. To stand on principle and refuse reward from the highest leader in one’s land, of one’s own group, and accept the risk of repercussions, is another matter. We have seen how some have chosen to stand up for what they know is right at the cost of their own status and even their safety.

In Exodus, the next Pharaoh to come to power continues his father’s ways. In a few weeks, we will read of the Egyptians, victims of multiple plagues, pleading with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go: “surely Egypt is lost.” After each plague, there is a moment of concern and outrage, but then Pharaoh is back to his old tricks and his Egyptian followers resume enabling his recalcitrance. Pharaoh insists that God is seeking to take from him what is rightfully his and continues to allow the plagues to escalate until there is not a home in Egypt that does not know death. Eventually, Pharaoh’s most fervent troops, still convinced of their victory, even after every plague, follow Pharaoh into the sea. We have seen, this week, a taste of the damage that can result when a losing cause becomes an idol to be worshipped.  

Ironically, there is a rabbinic take that, at the end of the story, Pharaoh escapes the consequences of his actions. Exodus specifies that the Israelites saw the Egyptians drowned at sea, but does not mention Pharaoh. According to one legend (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 43), Pharaoh himself came through the sea safely and ended up becoming a king again, in Nineveh (where, ironically, he led the people to listen on Jonah's message and repent). It is not for me to decide what the consequences of this week’s events will be for those who charged into the Capitol or for those who egged them on, but it would not surprise me if the penalties end up being applied unevenly.

In my work with those facing addiction, I have learned that often the addict and their (sometimes well-intentioned) enablers follow a downward spiral because would rather tolerate the downsides of an activity that brings short-term pleasure than suffer the pain of making a change. Change only happens when the addict “hits rock bottom,” when the consequences of their actions are so severe and unpalatable that there is a recognition that it cannot continue. I’m not sure if Pharaoh himself ever hit that bottom, even when literally plunged into the depths of the sea, but his people did. 

For most of us, the sight of insurrectionists storming and looting our Capitol building and beating police, was already several steps too low. The fact that some were waving Confederate flags and wearing Nazi-inspired t-shirts only added insult to injury. Our communal discourse can sink no lower without risk of drowning us all. I can only hope that the unfathomable events of this week lead to a new, broader consensus that our society’s real problems require introspection, honesty, cooperation, and a new direction.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784