Parshat Bo: Moshe’s treatment of Paroh and the obligation to respect monarchs and rulers

And all of these servants of yours will come down to me. And they will bow to me saying, “Go forth – you and all of the nation at your feet.” And afterwards I will depart. And he left Paroh in a show of anger. (Shemot 11:8)

After nine plagues, Paroh refuses to release Bnai Yisrael. Moshe tells Paroh of the final plague. In the tenth plague, Hashem will destroy the firstborn of the Egyptians. Moshe reveals to Paroh that this punishment will break the will of the Egyptians to resist. Paroh’s closest ministers will plead with Moshe to take Bnai Yisrael out of bondage. The plague had the effect foretold by Moshe. The Egyptians entreated the Jewish people to leave the Land. Paroh himself beseeched Moshe to lead Bnai Yisrael out of the Land.

Rashi explains that Moshe knew that Paroh himself would seek him out and plead with him to spare Egypt. Moshe did not reveal this detail to Paroh. This omission was intentional. Moshe was showing respect for the dignity of the king. He, therefore, indicated that the ministers would petition him.[1]

Paroh was a rasha – an evil person. He had persecuted the Jewish people and refused to heed to the command of Hashem. He remained obstinate even after his own people had suffered terribly. It seems odd that Moshe would feel compelled to respect the honor of this corrupt monarch!

In order to answer this question, let us consider a related issue. Shulchan Aruch explains that we are required to recite a blessing upon seeing a king or ruler. This applies even to a non-Jewish ruler. The blessing recited is Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, the King of the universe, who gave from His glory to creatures of flesh and blood.[2] This blessing is required regardless of the moral standing of the king. There is an important lesson to be learned from this requirement. We must recognize the importance of governmental authority within society. This concept is succinctly expressed in another teaching of our Sages. The Talmud instructs us to pray regularly for the welfare of the government. The Sages explain that without government, people would cruelly destroy one another.[3] A specific ruler may be evil and abuse his or her power. However, the institution of governmental authority is essential to the survival of society. This concept provides insight into the blessing. The blessing is not designed to praise the ruler. The blessing is an acknowledgment of the institution represented by the monarch or leader. Therefore, the blessing is required, regardless of the moral integrity of the specific king.

Paroh did not deserve respect as an individual. He was an evil, despicable despot. Despite these personal qualities, he still represented an important institution. He was ruler of Egypt. Moshe recognized the importance of governmental authority. He showed respect to that institution not to Paroh.

This understanding of the obligation to respect the king – even a despot – suggests a solution to another problem. Maimonides explains in his Mishne Torah – his code of law – that we are required to treat a King of Israel with deep respect. We are obligated to behave towards the King with deference and awe. Among the laws that are designed to instill a proper sense of respect for the king are a prohibition against sitting upon the throne or even the chair of the King, or riding upon his horse. Personal elements of his property may not be used by others. His widow may only remarry another King of Israel. In addition to the many laws that govern the behavior of the people towards their King, there are also a number of laws designed to assure that the King conduct himself in a dignified manner. Among these laws is even a requirement for meticulous personal grooming.[4] This requirement upon the King seems intuitively reasonable. The people are required to respect the King. He is required to act in a manner that encourages this respect and to avoid behaviors that will undermine the people’s deference towards him.

We are also required to act respectfully to Torah scholars. Maimonides explains that the level of deference due a Torah scholar even supersedes that due a parent. However, in describing the requirement to respect the Torah scholar, Maimonides does not mention any requirement upon the scholar to conduct himself in a dignified manner.[5] In other words, Maimonides does not describe a set of requirements upon the Torah scholar parallel to the King’s requirement to conduct himself with dignity.[6]

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik suggested that Maimonides’ divergent treatments of the King and the Torah scholar reflects that we are required to act with deference to both. However, whereas the King is required to act in a manner that encourages other to treat him with esteem, the Torah scholar is not subject to a similar requirement.[7] Of course, this raises an obvious question: Why does the Torah not require the scholar to conduct himself with dignity – as it requires of the King?

The above discussion provides a plausible explanation for Maimonides’ distinction between the King and a Torah scholar. The respect due to the King is not directed to him personally. We are required to respect and act with deference to the institution represented by the monarch. This obligation applies to the people of Israel and extends to the King as well. The people must respect the institution and the King must conduct himself in a manner that dignifies the institution. In contrast, the respect and deference due to the Torah scholar are not directed to the scholar on a personal level. Neither is there an institution of “Torah scholar” that these requirements are intended to uphold. Instead, we are required to honor the Torah. The Torah scholar represents Torah. It is for this reason alone that we are required to act towards him with respect and deference.

The intent and design of the obligation to honor the Torah scholar is reflected in Maimonides’ formulation of the obligation. In his introduction to the Laws of Torah Study, he explains that this section of his Mishne Torah discusses the laws included in two commandments:

• The study of Torah.
• Honoring those who teach Torah and know Torah.

At first glance, this wording seems needlessly cumbersome. Why did Maimonides not define the second mitzvah as “to honor Torah scholars”? Why did he adopt a more complex and wordy description for the commandment? The above discussion suggests that Maimonides carefully selected his words. His intention is to communicate that the Torah scholar is not honored because he has achieved a station or status that demands respect. In other words, he is not honored because of who he is. Instead, he is treated with reverence because of his association with the Torah. He is a teacher of the Torah or one who knows the Torah.

Now, the distinction between the King and the Torah scholar can be understood. The King shares with the people the obligation to promote respect of the institution of governmental authority. The people must act with deference to the King and the King must conduct himself with appropriate dignity. In contrast, the respect we are required to demonstrate to a Torah scholar is an expression of reverence for the Torah. The scholar and the people must demonstrate this reverence through their conduct towards those who are associated with Torah – its teachers and scholars. However, there is no institution of “the Torah scholar” that the Torah scholar is required to promote.

This discussion provides a possible explanation for another apparent inconsistency in Maimonides’ treatment of these two instances of mandated reverence. In his discussion of the obligation to respect the Torah scholar, Maimonides asserts that this obligation is engendered by a specific commandment. However, in his discussion of the respect due to the King, Maimonides does not identify a commandment that specifically legislates this attitude and behavior of deference. The inescapable conclusion is that the obligation to behave with respect towards the monarch is not engendered by its own specific commandment. Instead, this obligation is included in the commandment that authorizes the institution of the King of Israel. In other words, in creating this institution, the Torah implicitly created an obligation to honor the institution. The institution is meaningless unless it is associated with an obligation of obedience to the King and respect towards the monarch.

However, the obligation to honor the Torah scholar must be legislated by a specific commandment. This is because the scholar’s status and station do not intrinsically produce an obligation to revere the scholar. Instead, this obligation expresses the relationship between the scholar and the Torah. A specific mitzvah is required in order to legislate this association or to establish that the Torah is honored through the reverence we demonstrate towards the scholar.[8]

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 11:8.
2. Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 224:8.
3. Mesechet Avodah Zarah 4a.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 2:1-5.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5-6.
6. It should be noted that in his discussion of the requirement to act with respect towards Torah scholars, Maimonides omits mention of a requirement of the scholar to conduct himself with dignity. However, he does describe a detailed set of requirements that govern the personal conduct of the Torah scholar in an earlier section of his Mishne Torah. This section deals with development of proper personal character and the importance of moderation in one’s personal behavior. His inclusion of these laws in that section suggests that they are not an expression of a requirement upon the scholar to conduct himself with dignity. Instead, these laws are intended as a standard of personal behavior consistent with the Torah scholar’s pursuit of personal excellence. For example, this section includes laws governing proper dress for a Torah scholar. The scholar must dress in clean, modest, and moderate clothing. However, this is not an expression of personal dignity associated with his status as a scholar. Instead, Maimonides posits that it is a personal virtue for a person to dress with reasonable care and moderation. A Torah scholar should seek personal excellence even in this area of life and therefore, dress in an appropriate manner.
7. Kol Brisk, Introduction p 20a.
8. Maimonides explains in Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai Mikdash that the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – must conduct himself with dignity. Maimonides does not cite a mitzvah specifically legislating this requirement. This suggests that this obligation stems from the mitzvah that establishes the institution of the priesthood. In creating this institution, the Torah demanded that the person heading this institution – the Kohen Gadol – conduct himself in a manner that dignifies the institution.