A Royal Mockery

Falling Prey to Desire and Lust

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jacksonville, FL

As the planks crackled and flexed under his weight, an elderly pedestrian started having second thoughts, while crossing an old rickety bridge, and began to pray for mercy: "Dear G‑d, if only I will make it across the span I shall award 50% of my worth to charity, for what good are my possessions 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 wealth to the poor and indigent!" cried the man.

And so it went, the closer he got to the other side the smaller the offering became. From 40% it 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 do this on my own. You surely won't mind if I cancel the deal."

Before he could finish his words, he was knocked off his feet by a sudden quake; the bridge was actually collapsing beneath him. "Oh G‑d, where is your sense of humor? You know I was only joking"!  

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 can 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 ferocious and arrogant ambition from doing-them-in and making a complete fool of themselves 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 and a litany of other notorious bullies seem to have all taken a page out of the same book – the prophetic Bible that is. 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 Jewish people 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 highlighting and elucidating the ridicule which the Egyptians endured? Is this not plain Lashon Hora?

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 complex human matrix – the practical, emotional, spiritual 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 which breeds many problems and complications. It fosters divisiveness, adversity, resentment, alienation and ultimately self-destruction. Indeed, Pharaoh's arrogance led to the complete annihilation of the Egyptian infrastructure, the death of the first-born sons, and the obliteration 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. Especially since their original subjugation was for economic reward.

Even Pharaoh's own advisors recognized that the battle was over, after Moshe's 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?" (ibid. v.7) How then, could Pharaoh take such an irrational self-defeating stance?

True, Pharaoh was driven by an exaggerated self-image and distorted perception 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 heart and its emotions are clouded by the fog of desire and lust, they become 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.