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Pharaoh’s Error Should Not Become Ours

At the close of last week’s Torah reading, Moshe brings before God his personal complaint at his failure to expedite the release of the Jews from slavery.  After all, Moshe did exactly what God instructed him to do. Yet as a result of this initial confrontation, Pharaoh intensifies his work order.

In this week’s parsha, Va’eira, God reassures Moshe that His promise of liberation will soon come to pass. He gives Moshe further instructions for his next meeting with Pharaoh. Though Moshe and Aaron had just been summarily thrown out of Pharaoh’s presence, newly armed and encouraged by God, Moshe and Aaron boldly re-enter the palace.

After Moshe engages Pharaoh in an intellectual discussion about God, Pharaoh asks for a “sign” that will verify the ideas Moshe had presented to him. Moshe obliges by casting down his staff in front of Pharaoh. It becomes a snake. This demonstration should have been sufficient to convince Pharaoh but instead he immediately calls for his “wise men and magicians.” They too cast down their staffs. They too become snakes. This standoff was ended when Moshe’s staff swallowed their staffs.

In spite of this occurrence, that Pharaoh requested a sign and Moshe delivered one, we are told, “Pharaoh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them as God had spoken.” Earlier, God had told Moshe that Pharaoh would not accept this demonstration. What is it then that caused Pharaoh not to accept the sign he asked for? Furthermore, what is the Torah revealing about human nature that we are also susceptible?

Pharaoh had every right to demand a “sign” from Moshe. God even forewarned Moshe to anticipate this request. Such a situation is not unlike one that every science teacher may face at various stages of instruction. The teacher presents a new idea or theory in chemistry or physics. In the normal process of learning, the student may ask for or the teacher may already have prepared a demonstration to verify and solidify the new concept.

However, the instructor would never call a magician to perform in his class. When a magician is called forth, we know that his results are produced by a misdirection or sleight of hand. In fact, once the trick is revealed, we feel deceived and let down. Not so though when we are shown how reality works. On the contrary, we are wowed by the understanding of how the physical universe works.

Pharaoh’s flaw was that the insight into reality that Moshe explained and demonstrated to him went against his emotions and desires as to how he wanted it to work. It was a direct breakdown to his self-image and standing among the Egyptian people. We have all experienced this same reaction in ourselves, albeit in a smaller way, when confronted with an idea or concept that goes against our emotions. We become stubborn and resistant to the truth. Hopefully, we eventually overcome this corrupt way of looking at the world. It may, however, take many more similar situations before this way of viewing the world is finally broken down and discarded.

The exodus from Egypt was not just to liberate the Jews from cruel bondage. It had to come about through knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the realities that: 1 there is one, non-physical God of the universe and 2 this God can override His laws of physics, if necessary, to bring about His will.

These two concepts, are understandably are deep and complex. Pharaoh was given numerous opportunities to learn and incorporate these ideas of reality into his understanding, thereby transforming his personality. Each succeeding plague was designed to show him and his people another aspect of God’s ability to effect a breach in the physical laws of the universe. He failed to learn from these opportunities and suffered the tragic consequences. Later, in next week’s parsha, Bo, even his magicians and wise men tell him to give it up. It is too late. His personality defect, his inability to admit he is operating out of false ideas of reality, has doomed himself and his nation for destruction.

Let us learn this important lesson from our parsha. Let us not make this same serious error in our approach to understanding how the world works or in our interactions with others.  Then we can be assured of success. We will always be willing to re-examine our premises and act from the knowledge and wisdom of God’s reality.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan