The Fog Of Arrogance And Pride

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.

As the planks flexed under his weight, while crossing the old rickety bridge, the frightened pedestrian prayed for mercy: "Dear G‑d, if only I will make it across the span, I shall give 50% of my worth to charity, for what good is my wealth if I'm to lose my life?"

As if in response to his prayer the dilapidated bridge suddenly felt stable and secure. "Oh merciful Lord I have now but half way to go, keep me safe and I will surely distribute 40% of my worth to the poor!" cried the man. And so it went, the closer he got to the other side the smaller the offering became. 40% became 30, then 20, then10.

As the ramp on the other side came into clear view the now confident walker boldly declared: "Father in heaven, I think I can really handle this on my own. You won't mind if I cancel the deal?”

He hardy finished his words, before he was knocked off his feet by a sudden quake; alas the bridge was collapsing beneath him. "Oh dear Lord, where is your sense of humor? You know I was just kidding!” 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Every evil act tends to harden a man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good deed tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action. But there comes a point of no return when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom. (Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Who could forget the tough talk of Sadam Hussein; the game of cat and mouse he so conceitedly played with the UN inspectors, just weeks before his empire crumbled under the overwhelming firepower of the Coalition Forces in Desert Storm – how small and foolish he looked when all the macho posturing and gibberish talk about the "The mother of all battles," dissipated into a whimper. Even more widely etched into the memory of the world, is the humiliating pictures of him being pulled from a rat hole after the more recent Operation Freedom.

What could Sadam Hussein have been thinking? Did he really believe he could win a battle against America and the collision forces? What is it that would drive him to forfeit his immense power, his life and his dignity in a battle in which he stood not the slightest chance to prevail?

Most despots, it appears, share a common character flaw: An overabundance of arrogance and exaggerated egos, which never fails to do-them-in and turn them into complete fools in the process.

Every year, as we read about Pharaoh's pathetic shenanigans and his shameful fall, I'm reminded of the similar pitiful fate and disgraced legacies 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 playbook – the Prophetic Bible. The original joker, of course, is Pharaoh himself.

In fact, one of the reasons the damming plagues were visited upon Egypt was so that the ‘Mockery’ the Lord had made of Pharaoh and the Egyptians be known for all: "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."

The suggestion here is that G‑d is orchestrating a cataclysmic showdown between Himself and Pharaoh; an event so big, so public, and so dramatic that neither the Israelites nor the Egyptians – who believed Pharaoh to be a god – could ignore or misinterpret the meaning of. The events they were about to witness would once and for all establish that G‑d is the sole power in the universe while Pharaoh is merely a self proclaimed, self serving arrogant mutineer.

Still, the verses inspire many questions. Among them: If G‑d wants Pharaoh to release the Israelites, why does G‑d harden his heart? Isn’t this counter-productive? If G‑d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, doesn’t this impinge upon his free will? If Pharaoh’s decisions are under the control of G‑d, why does G‑d punish Pharaoh and all Egypt?

G‑d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is troubling from every perspective; philosophical, moral and religious. Philosophically, if people are endowed with free will, then by definition G‑d cannot interfere with it.

Morally: If G‑d were to constrict or void free will, how do we explain the ensuing punishment? Is G‑d’s desire to provide incontrovertible evidence of His Divine power over Pharaoh a sufficient explanation? Does it justify the enormous cost – economic ruin, suffering, and death?

Religiously: How can G‑d seek to make a mockery of Egyptians, given that humiliating others is against Jewish law? 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 Torah’s comments regarding Egypt’s “Mockery?”

The Rabbis in the Midrash address this very question: “’For I have hardened his heart’ (Exodus 10:1), R. Yochanan said: ‘Doesn’t this provide heretics with grounds for claiming that he [Pharaoh] had no means for repenting, since it says, For I have hardened his heart?’ R. Shimon B. Lakish replied: ‘let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up. If it concerns the scorners, “He scorns them” (Proverbs 3:34). When G‑d warns a man once, twice, and even a third time and he still does not repent, then G‑d closes his heart against repentance so that He may exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since G‑d sent five times to him and he took no heed, G‑d said, “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart, so I will add to your squalor.” Hence the statement: “For I have hardened his heart ‘Hichbadti.’ What does this imply? That G‑d made his heart like a liver (‘Kaved’) into which even if boiled a second time no juice enters. Pharaoh’s heart was like a liver; he did not receive the words of G‑d.’” (Bereishit Rabbah 13:3).

What Shimon B. Lakish appears to be saying here is that G‑d did not harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to extract revenge or justify plague and punishment so as to win the hearts and minds of the children of Israel, or the world at large. It was rather meant to call attention to the natural consequence of repeated defiance of the Divine sovereignty and law –the effect of Pharaoh’s failure to repent despite the many warnings and opportunities; how mired in his ways he had become and his inability to change.

It is not G‑d who annulled or contravened Pharaoh’s free will. It is Pharaoh who relinquished his free will by refusing to consider the moral ramifications of his decisions; by refusing to consider compassion rather than cruelty, by recklessly pursuing a path of arrogance and insubordination.

When Moshe and Aharon 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 you 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. Accordingly, 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 highly destructive character trait that has severe detrimental ramifications, not the least of which is a warped sense of reality. 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 clear thinking person 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?

Yet, Pharaoh was driven by an exaggerated self-image that led to an extremely distorted sense of reality. He smugly defied G‑d's demand, believing he would outsmart and outplay Him even in face of the relentless and devastating afflictions. Even if he was only partially realistic 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. His arrogant and defiant path has left his sense of reality twisted to the point of self humiliation and destruction

The Torah, as is well known, is a multi dimensional book of instruction. Each of its lessons and insights correspond to the diverse spectrum of human existence; 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; the indelible affects our behavior leaves on our hearts, minds and souls.

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 blinded as to 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.