Last week, I gave Pharaoh a hard time about some things. (I also gave G”d a hard time.) This week, a chance to find something redeemable about Pharaoh.
Oh, that nasty, evil Pharaoh. Yeah, you know, the one that G”d used as a pawn, hardening his heart so he would not let the people go, so that G”d could demonstrate G”d’s utter sovereignty. (Do you think I might be a tad too sympathetic to Pharaoh?)
וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה הוּא וְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וְכָל־מִצְרַיִם וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּמִצְרָיִם כִּי־אֵין בַּיִת אֲשֶׁר אֵין־שָׁם מֵֽת: לא וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּֽלְאַֽהֲרֹן לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי גַּם־אַתֶּם גַּם־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת־יְהוָֹה כְּדַבֶּרְכֶֽם: לב גַּם־צֹֽאנְכֶם גַּם־בְּקַרְכֶם קְחוּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם וָלֵכוּ וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּם גַּם־אֹתִֽי
And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the LORD as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
At the moment when Pharaoh finally relents, it’s easy to picture an utterly defeated man, exhausted, frustrated, bitter. You might think his last words to Moshe and Aharon, whom he summoned late in the night, might end with a stinger, a kicker, a last bit of anger or vitriol.
But no. What is the last thing that Pharaoh asks for? A blessing. Take your stuff and go, and may your blessings be mine.
[A side question – why did Pharaoh continue to play along with the ruse that G”d told Moshe and Aharon to use, about only needing to go a few days into the wilderness to pray and sacrifice to G”d? By that point, everybody knew that was a pretense, a sham, an alternative fact.]
The rabbis and commentators would, for the most part, have us believe that Pharaoh’s request for a blessing simply signifies Pharaoh’s ultimate realization that only Ad”nai, the G”d of the Israelites, is G”d. Yet Egypt did not suddenly become a nation that worshipped Ad”nai following the Exodus of the Hebrews. Ad”nai was not added to the pantheon of Egyptians gods (at least as far as we can tell. Who knows what actual crossover there might have been, if, indeed, the people that eventually become the Jewish people did indeed live in Egypt for a time before establishing their own nation? There is certainly evidence of Hebrew proto-script from ancient Israel. Look up the Sania 115 slab from the Harvard Semitic collection.)
I do not believe Pharaoh was admitting that the G”d of the Israelites was the One G”d. He might have been thinking that the G”d of the Hebrews was more powerful than all the gods of Egypt, indeed, more powerful than Pharaoh. After all, he was going to let the Hebrews go several times, and each time, for some reason, his heart was hardened. So Pharaoh had every reason to be a little upset with this G”d of the Hebrews. Yet Egypt and Egyptian religion persevered for thousands of years after the legendary biblical departure of the Israelites.
[Another side question – was Pharaoh aware that he had been manipulated? Did he have some disquieting sense that his will had been tampered with? Pharaoh’s level of awareness that he had been controlled and played by the Israelite G”d would surely figure into how he reacted in the end.]
I’m not even sure that Pharaoh was really seeking a blessing from the G”d of the Hebrews. Pharaoh simply asks that he receive “your (plural) blessings.”
I believe that, in actuality, Pharaoh was being a gracious loser, a good sport. Rather than sending Moshe and Aharon off with a curse, in language dripping vitriol, he plays the good sport. We are not shy to paint our own Jewish heroes as having failings and faults – so why not also portray our enemies as also being people of balance, and some good characteristics. (Except Amalek. Amalek is beyond the pale. Or is he?)
Something to admire in Pharaoh’s behavior? Not at all the way we usually find the text, or Pharaoh, portrayed. Yet I believe there is a lesson here for all of us.
I’m sure many of us have been at a point of utter defeat-forces allayed against us that we cannot overcome. In those moments, the temptation to lash out, to strike back, is strong, and hard to resist. For the moment, at least, Pharaoh resists. And that is a behavior worth emulating.
(Yes, later, Pharaoh does give chase. However, the text tells us that G”d once again hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It also tells us that Egyptian motivation to pursue the Hebrews was not revenge, but simple political and financial reality! G”d had wrought the ultimate humiliation upon Pharaoh and it still wasn’t enough. G”d manipulated Pharaoh into the pursuit that led to the death of so many Egyptian soldiers beneath the water of the Yam Suf. When we remove those drops from our wine glass at the Seder, we might do well to remember that we do it not only for the suffering of the Egyptians, but that this suffering was purposefully inflicted upon the Egyptians by G”d even after Pharaoh had relented and let the people go! Hard-hearted Pharaoh, or hard-hearted deity? Sometimes I wonder who had the harder heart.)
Graciousness in the face of overwhelming odds or defeat seems good not only for the sake of civility, but I also think it allows the loser to retain dignity. There is no dignity in revenge. Only in graciousness.
It’s probably mentally healthier too. It’s like responding “thank you” or “have a nice day” when someone yells an obscenity at you or flips you the bird. It sets the stage for getting past the agony of the defeat.
(Now. I’ll be the first to admit to my own hypocrisy in this regard during this period of political turmoil here in the U.S. Unlike many of my friends who have called for tempered responses, I have been one who has insisted upon holding on to my anger the better to fuel my desire to actively resist.
[Side thought – What do you do when you find yourself in a struggle with someone who would not be equally as gracious in defeat – but would be vengeful? In addition, what about being magnanimous in victory? The spilled drops of wine at Pesakh are tiny hints in that direction, but we could do, should do much more.]
So, as odd as it seems, in this regard, and even though I’m ignoring my own advice for the present, I think it is wise for people to try to follow Pharaoh’s example, and be gracious in defeat.
Be gracious in defeat when it comes your way. Be magnanimous in victory when it comes your way. Be grateful when your life gives you the opportunity for both. Learn from it all.
©2017 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Bo 5776 – Four Strikes and You’re…Well…(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 – Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 – Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 – Dear G”d…Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 – Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 – Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 – Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 – Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You’re…Well…
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well