Insights into people in the Torah: Not a name, but a title

The "Pharaoh": The Torah Portion of VaEira, Exodus 6:2-9:35.

Moshe Kempinski,

Judaism Moshe Kempinski
Moshe Kempinski
צילום: PR

We read in the first Torah portion of Shmot the following;

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, "Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. ( Exodus 1:8-9)

What happened to the attitude of another Pharaoh that we read of in Genesis;

And the voice was heard [in] Pharaoh's house, saying, "Joseph's brothers have come!" And it pleased Pharaoh and his servants And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Tell your brothers, 'Do this load up your beasts and go, enter the land of Canaan, And take your father and your households and come to me, and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and [you will] eat the fat of the land .( Genesis 45:16-18)

It is important to understand this change in heart from the  one Pharaoh to the other .It is also critical to contemplate what the impact of such a change would be on the Israelite people and on their plan of destiny.

In order to do this we need to explore not who Pharaoh was, but what a “ Pharaoh” was.

Pharaoh was not a name but a title. The ancient Egyptians believed him to be the mediator between the pagan gods and the mortals of this world. In fact after the death of a Pharaoh, he then becomes one of the celestial bodies in the skies and becomes  almost divine. The snake on his crown had, according to this pagan cultures belief,  the power to spew flames on all his enemies. In In ancient Egypt the “Pharaoh” was all knowing, all powerful and in perfect control of nature.


Even their innovations in the making of bread made them a unique feature of the world at that time. That last fact may give some other insight to the importance of Pharaoh's baker in the Joseph story and the separating from leavened bread to commemorate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
Ancient Egypt was the preeminent civilization in the world for many  centuries. Their military power and organization assured its control and mastery of vast territory. Their innovations in mathematics, construction, agriculture medicine and art ensured their supremacy over all other fledgling civilizations. Even their innovations in the making of bread made them a unique feature of the world at that time. That last fact may give some other insight to the importance of Pharaoh's baker in the Joseph story and the separating from leavened bread to commemorate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Taking all this into consideration one begins to understand the devastating impact of Joseph’s  Pharaoh. We read in the Torah text how this all-powerful Pharaoh is troubled after two frightening dreams;

It came to pass at the end of two full years that Pharaoh was dreaming, and behold, he was standing over the Nile. ...8Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh( Genesis 41:1,8)

We see an All Knowing Pharaoh troubled because suddenly he is not so All-Knowing.

This same Pharaoh then creates even greater confusion in the ideology and theology  of Egyptian society when a he gives over the administrative reigns to a young Hebrew.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you. You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you."(ibid  41"39-40)

 As a result the Egyptian people did not come to Pharaoh for counseling or divine protection, they came to this young Hebrew man. "And all [the inhabitants of] the land came to Egypt to Joseph to purchase, for the famine had intensified in the entire land. ( ibid :57)

Such a state of affairs could not continue in Egypt for very long;

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, "Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. (Exodus 1:8-9)

The new Pharaoh believed that the world and these Hebrew people in particular needed to be re-taught the true place of “the Pharaoh” in the world. This then is the background and issues that Moshe and Aaron need to confront.

Moshe and Aaron declare to the pharaoh the Divine demand “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. G-d then begins the series of supernatural events that are meant to impact Pharaoh and as a result, change Egypt. In addition  these will be events that are intended to be an eternal lesson for the whole  world.

Because this time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth. (Ibid 9:14)

Our sages explain how the plagues can be seen as three distinct groupings with three distinct teachings to be conveyed. As we read in the Passover Haggadah “Rabbi Yehuda used to abbreviate them: ‘Detzakh Adash Be’achav’ (a mnemonic made up of the first letters of each of the ten plagues).”

The ideas are clearly enunciated in each the declaration related to the plagues in each grouping.

The first group intending to display “By this shall you know that I am G-d” (ibid 7:17). Pharaoh may have tried to use his magic to prove equality with G-d but these plagues destroy that attempt.

The second group is meant to convey “in order that you will know that I am G-d in the midst of the land” (ibid 8:18). That is to say not only is G-d supreme but He is present in relationship with all that goes on in the land.

The third group declares “in order that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.( ibid 9:14) There is no power in this reality that can contend with the power of Hashem

When the reigning world powers understand those three concepts then G-d’s plan can move forward. This remains the same whether the ruling world power is Egypt, Babylon, Rome or the United States. The world must comprehend the three truths determined by G-d’ actions in ancient Egypt. Yet this awareness must come out of self-realization and not by coercion.

Yet we read in the Torah portion of VaEira the following

 "But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. :But Pharaoh will not hearken to you, and I will lay My hand upon the Egyptians, and I will take My legions, My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt with great judgments. "( Exodus 7"3-4)

If in fact G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart how could the All-Just G-d then punish Pharaoh for decisions influenced by that hardened heart? Furthermore the great lessons that G-d wanted to impact Egypt and the world would be better achieved if the awareness was attained by free unencumbered choices. “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst.“(ibid:5)

As we shall learn from the biblical text that  after each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh is the one who hardens his own heart.

"And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as Hashem had spoken. (Exodus7:13).Then again; "But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as Hashem had spoken.(ibid 8:11) This is followed by; "Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh: 'This is the finger of G-d'; and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as Hashem had spoken. (ibid:15)And; “And Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go. (ibid:28). Finally we read; “... But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go. (ibid 9:7)

 

The Rambam ( Maimonides) explains, that there is indeed a point when a man may forfeit his free will and ability to repent. The more one succumbs to the temptation of the selfish animal instinct, the less control he tends to retain over his instinctive inclination and dictates. So in essence after five times of ignoring the Divine message, Pharaoh eliminated his own power of free will.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) on the other hand suggests another thought. After the fifth plague, when the suffering became so intolerable it may be that Pharaoh wanted to free the Jews. This was not because Pharaoh had finally accepted the power of Hashem, but rather because he could no longer tolerate the punishments. In fact the five plagues had consistently battered Pharaoh and his people to the point wherein they had no more free will and no power to choose.

As a result Hashem had to harden Pharaoh’s heart, not to take away his power of choice, but rather to return it. Pharaoh had to be able to make a choice devoid of the repercussions of the plagues that had devastated Egypt until this day. He had to make a free choice without the facts of the miraculous plagues getting in the way. So G-d hardened his heart and gave him the ability to withstand all that he had witnessed. As a result his decision to continue to enslave the Jews would be a function of free choice

As a result he would be culpable and the world would have the opportunity to learn.

 We are living in a time wherein G-d’s hand is clearly visible. We are seeing Hashem stirring the world in ways the world has not seen for thousands of years. All this Divine intervention and spiritual stirring is meant for one purpose. That is to get mankind off the fence. It is to help them to understand that the mastery of the world is not in the hands of Presidents Kings and Pharaohs, but rather they “shall know that I am Hashem “( Exodus 14:4).

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther





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