The Tendency To Cut The Nose To Spite The Face

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jax, FL

During the eight years that the noted Chassid, Reb Mendel Futerfas, spent in the Gulag in Siberia, courtesy of the Soviet regime, as a result of his “Illegal acts” on behalf of Yiddishkeit, he encountered many an extraordinary character.

In his subsequent years as a spiritual mentor, he would often recount the tales of these personalities and the lessons that he was able to glean from them regarding his service of G‑d.

Among these accounts was his encounter with a group of youth belonging to the “Haskalah” (Enlightenment) Movement. Members of this faction were wont to mock and disgrace all that is holy, especially the Jewish faith.

During his chat with the youngsters, they proudly shared their glorious history. They bragged about the day when a group of them, on their way to work, came upon a number of Chassidim walking with their Rebbe, the eminent Rebbe of Rudzhin.

They vividly recalled how they took advantage of the opportunity to ridicule and denigrate the “Fanatic believers.” When the Chassidim failed to react, they unleashed a more sordid battery of venomous insults. Seeing that they had no intentions to relent, the Rebbe turned to the head of the band and said, “It appears that you seek an unusual death.”

Not only was this individual unfazed and disinclined to halt his vulgar barrage, but rather intensified his brutal attack and name calling. Without uttering another word, the Rebbe continued on his way, suffering the abuse in silence.

The gang of “Maskillim” (Enlightened ones) arrived at the factory where they worked, a place of heavy machinery. No sooner had they begun to work, when a spine chilling shrill suddenly pierced the air. As they looked up they noticed that the clothes of the group leader have become caught in one of the machines. Before they could ascertain the impending danger, their friend was sucked into the machine and ground to pieces by the huge gears of the apparatus.

“When the narrator completed his dreadful tale,” said R’ Mendel, “he remarked, ‘If you think that we forgot the words of that Rebbe to that young man you are mistaken, not at all! However, if you think that we Maskillim have become intimidated and have taken a lesson from it, you are mistaken again. We cleaned the machine and went back to work as if nothing happened. We remain proud maskillim to this very day.’”

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We all remember the tough talk of Sadam Hussein during Desert Storm, as he played a game of cat and mouse with the UN inspectors, just weeks before his empire was crushed by the overwhelming firepower of the Coalition Forces.

Who could forget his macho posturing and gibberish talk about the "The mother of all battles," before he dissipated in a whimper. We certainly recall the humiliating pictures of him being pulled from a rat hole after Operation Freedom. Most despots, it appears, share a common character flaw, the inability to stop their oversized egos and arrogance from doing-them-in and making a complete fool of them in the process.

Every year as we read about Pharaoh's pathetic shenanigans and his disgraceful end, I'm reminded of the similar and pitiful fate of the many ensuing tyrants. Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Maximillien Robespierre, and a litany of other notorious bullies seem to have all taken a page out of the same book – the Prophetic Bible. The original joker being of course, Pharaoh himself.

In fact, one of the reasons for the damming plagues visited upon Egypt, was so that the Israelites would transmit to their children and grandchildren the very "Mockery" that the Lord had made of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

"Come to Pharaoh," says G‑d to Moshe in the opening verse of our Parsha, Bo, "For I have made his heart and the hearts of his servants stubborn, so that I can place these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son 'that I made a mockery of Egypt' . . . – so that you may know that I am the Lord."

But why make a big fuss over the mockery and mirth that Egypt has suffered? Seemingly the purpose of the miracles was "So that you may know that I am the Lord." Is the Torah suggesting that there is actual value in calling attention to the ridicule which the Egyptians endured?

Are we not taught that: “When your enemy falls do not rejoice, and when he stumbles let your heart not be glad, lest the Lord see and it will be displeasing to Him, and He will divert His wrath from him to you,”( Avos 4:19). How then do we explain the brouhaha over Egypt’s “Mockery?”

The Torah, as is well known, is a multi dimensional book of instruction. Each of its lessons and insights correspond to the diverse components of the human matrix – the practical, emotional and psychological etc. Valuable lessons can hence be gleaned from Pharaoh's obstinate behavior and the ensuing consequences with regard to our very own lives; our psychological dimension in particular.

When Moshe and Aaron approached Pharaoh to request the release of the Jewish people prior to the eighth plague, locusts, they conveyed G‑d's response to his senseless intransigence: "So said G‑d, L-rd of the Hebrews, 'Until when will your refuse to be humbled ("le'anos") before Me? Send out My people so they may serve me!'" (Exodus 10:3)

Rashi explains that the word "le'anos" derives from the etymology of "ani," a poor and destitute individual. G‑d is asking Pharaoh how long he will refuse to recognize his "poverty" before G‑d and become subservient to Him. Apparently, Pharaoh's repudiation of G‑d's numerous requests to free the Hebrews was rooted in haughtiness, an arrogance that did not allow him to defer to the will of the King of Kings.

Arrogance is a character trait that has many detrimental effects, leading to a variety of serious complications. It fosters divisiveness, resentment, alienation and ultimately self-destruction. Indeed, Pharaoh's arrogance led to the complete obliteration of the Egyptian infrastructure, the death of the first-born sons, and the annihilation of his army in the Sea of Reeds.

It was rather obvious, after the first set of plagues, that he had no choice but to release the Israelites. The first seven nature-defying inflictions, which wreaked havoc on the Egyptian metropolis and economy, were enough to convince any objective observer that it was no longer logical to keep the Israelites captive.

Even Pharaoh's own advisors declared  the battle over after Moshe warned of the forthcoming locusts: "How long will this be a snare for us? Send out the men so they may serve G‑d, their L-rd. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?" How then, could Pharaoh take such an irrational self-defeating stance?

True, Pharaoh was driven by an exaggerated self-image and distorted sense of reality. He smugly defied G‑d's demand, believing he would outsmart and outplay Him. Still, in face of the relentless and devastating afflictions he should have acquiesced. Even if he was only partially coherent  he should have discerned that by now he was hopelessly out-gunned.

While this would no doubt inflict a formidable blow to his royal ego, it would at least have spared him from the total annihilation suffered at the Red Sea where he forfeited every remaining vestige of honor and national glory. What could he have been thinking? The answer is that he wasn't.

The sages explain that when the mind is clouded by the fog of desire and emotion, it becomes blinded to reality to the extent of utter foolishness and self-destruction. Pharaoh's decisions to continue to defy G‑d and reality came from his ego-blinded heart with no rationale entering the process. Though he could see his entire dynasty being destroyed, he could not alter his intransigent ways and allow the Children of Israel to leave.

So he plunges ahead making deals and promises to G‑d only to renege on them the very moment he catches the slightest respite. He is entirely oblivious as to how increasingly small and foolish he appears with each desperate maneuver. 

On a microcosmic level, we each possess our own little Pharaoh, the inclination of arrogance and egotism. Much as in our Biblical narrative, we too make deals with G‑d only to break them the moment we think we are out of the woods. We become increasingly unaware of how foolish and cheap we become in the process.

By instructing us to "Relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt," the Torah reminds us to be cognizant of the foolish and destructive effects of our own arrogance and pride.

The Torah underscores how important it is for us to keep our egos in check, lest we fall prey to the ways of Egypt and lapse into a pathetic and shameful mockery.

Let us take to heart the message of our Prasha and learn on Pharaoh’s dime the destructive results of unholy arrogance and pride. May we develop true self abnegation towards G‑d and His commands. This will certainly hasten the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

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