Shaya Cohen -


What was Pharaoh Thinking?

Most of us learn Bible stories when we are young, and so we are taught very simplistic versions of what took place, of the nature of the characters involved. Above all, we learn to read the conclusions of the stories as neat morality tales that judge the players for their actions up to that point. In other words, we use hindsight to simplify the stories.

But people are not caricatures; they are real, with human complexities, strengths and weaknesses. To really understand the Torah, we need to actually use to the text to try to understand what they were thinking, how they made the decisions that they made. If we do it well, we do not only humanize our enemy, but we better understand the mistakes and pitfalls that await all of us when we fail to make critical mental leaps.

Let’s start with how Pharaoh views the Jewish people. The Hebrews are not merely a people who happen to be enslaved: it is intrinsic to their identity that they were slaves. This was hardly unusual: Pharaoh is on top of the ant heap, so the Torah tells us that even his officers were servants (using the exact same word that means “slaves”), To Pharaoh, there was no such thing as freedom or even free actors; Ancient Egypt was hierarchical, and he, Pharaoh, was at its pinnacle.

Leaders throughout time – and Pharaoh was no exception – understand that people cannot manage their own affairs. They need to be told what to do, how to spend their time. Otherwise, people just fall apart, unable to survive in a world where they were not micromanaged by those who are smarter and wiser than they are. Enslaving people is just noblesse oblige, the burden of greatness that falls on the ruling class.

We have, of course, typically blamed this mindset on Western Colonialism, but the sentiment and conceit are hardly Western in origin: every leader of every country or people in history has at least tasted what a superiority complex feels like. As Emperor Hirohito once put it, “You cannot understand the problems I had when I was God.”

When Moses repeatedly asks for the people to go serve G-d, Pharaoh sees this as a loss to his own prestige: why should his slaves go be slaves for another deity? Especially considering that this other deity is entirely new to Egypt, and does not seem to represent any natural force like the sun or moon, wind or sea. To lose your slaves to a lesser deity is a real reduction in one’s own power.

Still Pharaoh allows it (obviously under great duress). But then something happens: “The king of Egypt was told that the people had fled.” The word for “fled” is the same word used to describe a lost and lonely Hagar fleeing from her mistress; she almost dies for lack of ability to look out for herself. Fleeing is not an organized exit, a composed departure. It is what a desperate and lost person does when they don’t know what else to do. The signs are everywhere with the Jews: they failed to plan ahead by making bread for the next day; the Torah tells us the people were chamushim, like the animals created on the Fifth day of creation– lizards and bugs, instinctive animals that are not capable of thinking or planning, just responding to stimulus.

It seems that the use of this word, “flee” raises alarm bells for Pharaoh. Hold on! The people are not serving some other G-d? Instead, they seem to be out of control, a mindless rabble without any leadership. No leader allows his slaves to “flee.” Moses must be way out of his depth, and this elusive Jewish G-d is AWOL – if He ever existed in the first place.

The related problem is that the people are not likely to survive out there in the wilderness. What a waste it would be for a useful workforce to merely perish for want of a competent leader! The people clearly are like an inexperienced swimmer who starts to panic when he finds himself in the deep end.

So Pharaoh exclaims, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He decides to undo it.

Pharaoh mounts up, but his 600 chariots were not meant to attack the people. The Torah uses the word rodef for pursuit, a word first used to describe Avraham going to save Lot from his foreign captors. Pharaoh is not trying to massacre the people! He is engaged in a rescue mission, to save the people from themselves, poor lambs. If they weren’t serving this elusive G-d after all, then they were going to need help – and nobody else was there to step up.

Pharaoh is not, of course, clearly wrong in his assessment. The people also want to go back to Egypt! Coining the very first Jewish joke:

And they said unto Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.’

Everyone it seems, wants the people to go back to Egypt, to be saved by Pharaoh and returned to his wise leadership. Everyone, that is, except Moses and G-d Himself. Which leads to the Big Reveal of the Exodus, when G-d comes out of nowhere to wipe out the Egyptians.

Pharaoh, of course, in his rescue mission, trying to readopt the poor, unguided and lost people, never saw G-d coming. Which makes a kind of sense: Pharaoh is not evil in his world or in his own eyes. He is a good guy (aren’t we all?!). The concept of a divinely-gifted soul and the value of human life are unknown to Egyptians, and in a rational world, people can quite reasonably be measured on the basis of their utilitarian value, the work that they can get done in their lives.

We should try to understand how Pharaoh thought, if only to ensure that we avoid those same thought patterns ourselves. The Exodus from Egypt is more than a geographical movement of a people: it is also an exodus from the Egyptian worldview writ large, a world in which people are defined by their status and valued by the work they do, a world in which there is no sense of personal freedom, merely people who live and work within the roles defined for them by the accident of birth.

The contrast of Egypt and Israel is the grand dichotomy within the Torah: Egypt represents the physical, practical, reasonable and realistic worldview. And Israel comes to represent the spiritual and unreasonably optimistic people who see things not as they are, but as they should be. Pharaoh and Moses are the embodiment of their nations.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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