RISING ABOVE POLITICS
December 26, 2018
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1147, Parsha Thought, Shmos

THE DEATH OF PHARAOH

The beginning of the Book of Shmos-Exodus describes the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt after the passing of Joseph and his brothers. Their enslavement continued for many years, but it came to a head when Pharaoh died. This event, the Torah states, precipitated G-d’s response to their cries and commenced the process of their liberation through Moses.

What changed the dynamic of slavery to such a degree that it warranted G-d’s intervention?

The Torah provides us with the answer:

“After many days had passed the king of Egypt died. The children of Israel groaned from the hard work, and they cried out. Their cries, caused by the hard work, went up to G-d.”

From this verse it is clear that Pharaoh’s death was a watershed moment in the Egyptian bondage.

The obvious question here is what connects the death of Pharaoh to the anguish of the children of Israel and why did that precipitate their crying out to G-d?

RASHI’S EXPLANATION

Rashi, anticipating this question, explains that the reference to Pharaoh’s death here is not to be taken literally. Rather, as the Midrash records in an oral tradition, Pharaoh was afflicted with tzaraas (leprosy, or some other debilitating skin disease).

According to the Talmud (Nedarim 64b), a person suffering from tzaraas is referred to as having died. Indeed, later (Numbers 12:12) the Torah describes Aaron’s reaction to Miriam’s tzaraas with a comparison to death when he pleaded with Moses: “Don’t let her be like the dead…”

To cure his leprosy, the Midrash relates, as cited by Rashi, Pharaoh was told by his doctors that he must bathe in the blood of children. Pharaoh then slaughtered hundreds of Jewish children and bathed in their blood! This horrific act caused the Jews indescribable anguish, which got them to cry out to G-d. And at that point, the Torah relates, G-d heard their cries and appointed Moses to be their liberator.

The Mizrachi commentary questions Rashi’s explanation. The Torah states that they cried out because of the slave labor. What does their suffering due to the brutal murder of their children have to do with the pain associated with slave labor, to which they were already accustomed?

One way of answering Mizrachi’s criticism is based on human psychology. The children of Israel became inured to slave labor because it was a constant in their lives. When things don’t change, even if they are painful, habituation to the pain and its predictability lessens a person’s sensitivity to it. However, when a new and increased dynamic of pain and suffering is introduced into the mix, it reactivates and enhances even those aspects of a person’s painful life which have become second nature.

The relevant lesson for us today is obvious:

We have become so inured to the pain of Galus-exile that it took, tragically and regrettably, a new tragedy and source of suffering of an even higher magnitude to drive home the realization that no part of exile is acceptable and painless. We cried out to G-d, not just for the new pain, but for all of Galus, recognizing that the source of all pain, old and new, is the shrouding of G-d’s presence in this world.

“THE HEARTS OF MINISTERS AND KINGS ARE IN THE HANDS OF G-D”

The Chassidic work Chaim V’Sholom offers another approach to thinking about Pharaoh’s death. Indeed, the passing of Pharaoh can be taken literally. Thus, the question becomes why they would cry out to G-d due to Pharaoh’s death?

The answer is that they were not crying out to G-d because of his death per se, but that his death awakened their awareness that suffering, and its relief, do not come from Pharaohs. Previously, they did not cry out to G-d for salvation because they thought things would get better when Pharaoh died. They may have put all their hope and trust in his eventual death. Perhaps then, they hoped, they would be able to take a breather from slavery.

Only after Pharaoh’s demise did they realize that nothing had changed because, in truth, the “hearts of minsters and kings are in the hands of G-d.” It really didn’t make much difference which Pharaoh lorded over them. They came to realize that, rather than basing their hopes on a mortal king, they should redirect their hopes to and trust in the One Above. This is why they cried out to Him, Whom they neglected before.

Another lesson for our times becomes crystal clear. While Jewish law requires us to show respect and express gratitude for the secular leaders of our country, we must never put our trust in them. Our fate in exile, and our ultimate liberation from it, does not come from any particular political system and its leaders. To survive in Galus and finally get us out of it we must focus and depend on G-d.

FIGHTING DEEP EVIL WITH DEEP GOODNESS

Returning to Rashi’s explanation, we can offer a novel interpretation, and add a deeper layer of meaning, to Pharaoh’s becoming a metzora.

Our Sages teach that metzora is a composite word: motzi-ra – one who finds negativity in, and elicits it from, another.

To say Pharaoh became a metzora suggests that his physical condition was a symptom of a deeper spiritual malady. We may now see Pharaoh as one who was not content with expressing his surface evil and enabling the surface evil of others, but who dug deep into the subterranean layers of his and other’s personalities to find ever more diabolical ways of torturing the children of Israel.

When the forces of evil reveal only their superficial negative powers, our response will also be superficial. While we may experience and express our pain, our reaction will be measured. When, however, the forces of evil go all out and unleash their deepest and most ferocious forces that lurk beneath the surface, our response will likewise be to pull out all the stops. Our prayers will burst out from the depths of our hearts and souls.

THREE EXPRESSIONS OF CRYING

This may explain why the Torah uses three different expressions to describe the reaction of the children of Israel to Pharaoh’s “death”: “[The children of Israel] groaned-vaye’anchu [from the hard work, and] … they cried out-vayizakuTheir cries-shavasam [caused by the hard work, went up to G-d].”

Why does the Torah use these three different expressions for their crying out?

In light of the above, it may be suggested that the Torah is describing three layers of their cries, paralleling the three levels of evil executed by Pharaoh. Generally speaking, we each have three layers of personality: The overt, conscious and surface level of our personality; the underlying hidden layer – what people have in their thoughts but don’t express and only act on when they are provoked; and the subconscious, essential aspect of who we are, which we often are unaware of on a conscious level.

Pharaoh was not content with executing on his overt plan to oppress the children of Israel. He allowed his inner, essential evil to surface, just like the blotches of white-dead flesh which show up on the skin of a metzora. This dead flesh is a tell-tale sign that there is a deeper evil dwelling inside which has been forced to the surface and manifests itself in all its horror.

Alternatively, the three different cries can be said to reflect the levels of body, heart and soul. Pharaoh’s evil decrees affected the bodies of the children of Israel, which caused them to groan. His decrees also affected their emotions, which caused them to cry out. It also afflicted their souls, which elicited an even deeper, gut-level form of crying from the depths of their souls.

The Jewish people’s response revealed their own inner souls. Not only did they express their surface feelings of pain and evoked their deep emotions, but they bared the very essence of their souls to G-d

MOSES AND MOSHIACH THE METZORA

It is puzzling that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96b) identifies Moshiach as a metzora. Of all titles, why would our Sages use such a negative one for the most exalted human being? Many explanations have been given for this strange sobriquet.

In light of what we have just considered, calling Moshiach a metzora may be understood to mean that Moshiach will elicit his own innermost soul-powers to liberate the Jewish people from modern-day exile, which in recent times has exhibited the deepest and most profound forms of evil.

This may explain why Moses was afflicted with tzaraas when he refused to accept the role of liberator and criticized the Jewish people’s worthiness of being liberated. The simple explanation given by our Sages is that tzaraas is a punishment for one who slanders others. Because he slandered the Jewish people, he was punished with tzaraas.

However, perhaps we may suggest that by afflicting Moses with tzaraas, G-d wanted to show him that the Jewish people were indeed worthy. Indeed, by afflicting Moses with tzaraas G-d hinted that in their anguished cries they bared their souls, just as Pharaoh bared his own deeply evil soul. The Jewish people were not who they appeared to be on the surface. They had truly earned their liberation.

We can also come to G-d and state, as the Rebbe declared on many occasions: We have expressed our deepest soul-powers and we are worthy and ready for Moshiach and Redemption!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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