Saturday, January 21, 2006

Pharaoh, Egypt and the Love and Fear of G-d

At the beginning of Shemos we are told that a new king arises over Egypt who does not know Yosef. Yet shouldn't the more important point be that he doesn't know G-d? The previous Pharaoh understands and refers to G-d. The succeeding Pharaoh whom Moshe later encounters stated that he does not know G-d. So why is it mentioned that the new king did not know a man rather than that he did not know G-d?

Further what is the importance of telling us that the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef? Had he known Yosef do we really believe that he would have acted differently and not worked to enslave and exterminate the Jews? Furthermore could anyone in Egypt really not know the story of a slave who predicted a famine, became viceroy, placed the entire nation under Pharaoh's control and reorganized it from top to bottom?

When then does telling us that the new king did not know Yosef, tell us? That he had no gratitude towards Yosef. The words used are, Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef. It was not a simple matter of not having a piece of information but he did not really know and understand Yosef and who he was. To him Yosef was a man who had done some useful things and was rewarded for it. He did not understand that through Yosef Egypt and the world were blessed. He felt no gratitude or obligation towards Yosef and most importantly he did not know what Yosef had told the previous Pharaoh, that he was only G-d's agent.

By not knowing this the new king did not know G-d and this tells us why he was prepared to enslave and destroy the Jews. His lack of gratitude, his failure to recognize G-d's blessings made him capable of the brutality he would inflict on the Jews. The former Pharaoh could receive communications from G-d in dreams, the future Pharaoh could only receive indirect messages and those messages generally could not even be received by Moshe in his own presence.

Beginning with the previous Pharaoh's ingratitude towards Yosef, Egypt had moved away from G-d and sunk into lower depths of impurity. Worship of G-d is premised on gratitude, on recognizing and appreciating what G-d does for us. Egypt's inability to be grateful severed it from all connection to G-d not based on fear. Its inability to be grateful towards men severed all human relationships not based on fear. What remained was a brutal society of tyrants and slaves incapable of repentance because repentance cannot be based only on fear but also on love.

When Moshe comes to Pharaoh he first asks him to allow the Jews to make a celebration, a Chag, to G-d. Pharaoh replies that he does not know G-d. Then Moshe rephrases the request to be allowed to make sacrifices to G-d or he might slay them. Pharaoh rejects the requests emphasizing his enslavement of the Jews.

The first request is phrased as a celebration which is an act of gratitude to G-d. Pharaoh does not understand this because he does not understand gratitude. When Moshe rephrases it as making sacrifices to appease G-d, Pharaoh understands this because he understands fear but to this his response is that he has already enslaved the Jews and they must fear him more than their G-d.

This pattern continues with each plague. Many are baffled as to how Pharaoh can see the devastation of the plagues and beg Moshe to end the plagues and yet immediately return to his old ways. But there are two levels of worshiping G-d, out of Yira or fear and out of Ahava, or love. During the plagues Pharaoh could become terrified of G-d. But once the plagues passed he was incapable of gratitude to G-d for ending the plague. Instead he now had nothing to fear and returned to his old ways.

Repeatedly it tells us that Vayehazek Et Lev Pharaoh, Pharaoh's heart was strengthened. What is a heart strengthened against? Against feeling. His stony heart allowed him to be unfeeling so that he would feel no gratitude towards G-d. He could only be afraid but fear passes when the danger does. To form a more enduring bond requires deeper emotions that his heart was strengthened against.

Though Egypt's animals had been repeatedly wiped out, we see that the Egyptians still had horses to chase after the Jews with. Where did they get those horses? We learn that it was the Yorei Devar Hashem, Those Who Feared the Word of G-d, those Egyptians who had taken in their animals who provided the horses. Like Pharaoh they were capable of temporary fear but when that fear passed, they lacked the gratitude to hold them back from returning to their old cruel ways.

Today in America and Israel we often experience this same pattern when dealing with Arabs and Muslims. We spend billions to provide them with aid and goods. We come to their aid when they experience natural disasters. We give them land, we make concessions to them and we wonder why they don't like us. Often we decide that after what we have done for them, their hatred for us proves that we have still done them wrong. So too the Jewish overseers blamed Moshe and Aaron rather than realizing that they were dealing with a man and a nation incapable of gratitude or normal human feeling.

The more we do for Arabs and Muslims, the more they hate us. So too despite all that Yosef and the Jewish people did for Egypt, the Egyptians came to hate them more than anyone else. When Moshe undid a plague or even its after-effects, this did not cause the Egyptians to be grateful, instead they continued as they were. Each concession we make to the Arabs only deepens their hatred because no matter what is done, they are incapable of being grateful but only of hatred and fear. When fear is not present, the hatred emerges.

Like Yosef, America is convinced that if we change the structure of their society we can change them. So under Yosef they were first enriched and then absolutely impoverished so they could not claim that they were incapable of relating to the Jews because of their own poverty or their own wealth. They were enslaved themselves to Pharaoh and then became wealthy again (as we see they had gold and silver vessels to freely lend.) They were moved apart from city to city so their hostility could not be attributed to xenophobia. But as Yosef discovered and as America is finding out after all this, they remained the same. A people cannot be changed against their will. They must change and they must do that by opening their hearts. As long as they celebrate only cruelty and savagery, they will remain a society of tyrants and slaves. They can be brought to fear G-d and to fear men, but never to love them.


ruth2 said...

Wonderful post. Thank you. The closing sentence conveys much. To truly fear G-d and man one has to humble himself. Pride stands in the way for too many people.

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