In this week’s parsha, we read of the first seven of the ten plagues that were inflicted upon Pharaoh and Egypt and that got the Redemption process going. A question that arises about how God administered them concerns the justice in God’s removal of Pharaoh’s free choice when He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How can you blame Pharaoh for not abiding by Moshe’s request to free the Israelite slaves if God had repeatedly forced Pharaoh not to let them go?
The commentaries throughout the ages have grappled with this issue and present many perspectives on it. A close reading of the text reveals that God is not mentioned as the subject in the verses that describe the first five plagues. It doesn’t explicitly state that, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” but rather, “He hardened his heart” – the ambiguity lending some to believe that it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart. This is in contrast to the latter plagues where the Torah clearly states God as the subject, and the one who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart and making him stubborn. Pharaoh’s ability to choose and allow the Israelites to leave was removed only later on.
But a completely different and opposite viewpoint is that, in actuality, God kept Pharaoh’s freewill alive, vibrant and strong. Logically and practically, a leader such as Pharaoh who had experienced so many open and obvious miracles should have let the Jewish people go free. The events were so clearly detrimental to the king, his land and his economy, that it should have been enough for Pharaoh to conclude that he must cut his losses and rid himself of the Israelites.
Instead, God arranged that Pharaoh could make a fresh and new choice after each plague, as if each plague were the first. Sort of like losing his memory about the previous ones. God didn’t remove his free choice, but actually gave it back to him – fresh and clean, without the memory, history and feelings of past repercussions. It was Groundhog Day all over again.
It is an interesting perspective since it very much mirrors the behavior of the little Pharaohs that live in all of us. Aren’t we just like Pharaoh when we stubbornly stick to losing policies and behavior? And indeed Jewish tradition compares Pharaoh to our personal Yetzer Hara or Evil Inclination – that tiny Pharaoh that abides in each and every one of us.
Let’s face it – every person has his or her weaknesses and character flaws. King Solomon writes that “there is no such thing as a completely righteous person in the land” and that we all have our challenges in life in some way or another. We each have our things that drag us down and, just like Pharaoh, we stubbornly stick with those losing propositions. Every time we think the outcome will be different, only to be once again disappointed that it isn’t. Whether it’s gambling, food, alcohol, drugs or lust – the pattern is always the same. A promise of something that never delivers.
And just like Pharaoh, whenever the opportunity arises to up and leave, we don’t but we get sucked, and suckered, right back into it like Charlie Brown convincing himself that this time, just this once, Lucy will not pull away the football when he goes to kick it. And just like Charlie Brown, we always end up flat on our back – defeated and hurt at our insanity.
It is reputed that Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Similarly the Talmud says that a person only sins when a ruach sh’tus, literally a spirit of stupidity or insanity, comes over us.
So what’s the solution? How do we get out of this losing cycle of self-destruction? Going back to our parsha, the only way out of this Pharaoh-like behavior is to be like Moshe, Pharaoh’s opposite and foil. And what is the main character-trait and quality that the Torah later tells us about Moshe, the anti-Pharaoh? Humility. Not being wedded to any particular personal gain or agenda but only to what is Godly, good and true.
The addiction to power with Pharaoh-type zeal will always result in destruction and even death. We see this all too often both on a national level and a personal one, and the only way to overcome either is with a great sense of humility and a realization that it is not about me and my immediate desires, wants or needs, nor is it about a false belief in the centrality and all-importance of any one person to a nation, cause or group. Pharaoh forgot about the good of his nation, took his show-down with God and Moshe personally, and made it all about him the same way Putin, Assad, Erdogan, Maduro and countless other ego-centric leaders overstay their time to the ruin of their nation. Moshe knew all along that his leadership had nothing to do with him but that it was all about the good and welfare of God’s people and their future.
And so too on a personal level, we soldier on with Pharaoh-like blindness, hoping against hope that the destructive behavior will produce different results, only to be disappointed time and again at the plague of poor choices that gets us nowhere.
Pharaoh versus Moshe – those are the choices in our lives. Ego versus the altruism of Humility. Pharaoh’s choices led to the downfall and death of many. Moshe’s choices led to Redemption, life and eternity. We all have the choice in front of us – choose Moshe.
Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run