Each week, OU’s Institute of Political Affairs (IPA) Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
(The below piece is based on a talk IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman delivered at Congregation Tiferet Israel in Austin, TX in January 2010. To learn more about opportunities for your community to have IPA staff as lecturers, panelists or scholars-in-residence, please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
“What power always does is reveal. When you do have power to do things, people find out what it is you always wanted … And what does Lyndon Johnson do when he gets power? He passes the social welfare legislation.” — Robert Caro
Compare the personalities of Moses & Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus and then at our story’s end. We witness the two main characters of the whole drama have done complete 180 degree role reversals.
At first Pharaoh is proud, even obstinate – who is the G-d of the Hebrews? He is even obstinate, denying G-d’s power, agreeing to let the Jews leave and then reneging when the danger of the moment has passed. But fast forward a few weeks (or to the end of the movie): Egypt’s economy is laid waste, its fields barren, her livestock destroyed. The firstborn of Egypt lie dead and Pharaoh himself is reduced to a street by street search to find Moses and end the nightmare. No longer the proud and fearless leader of the most powerful nation on Earth; gone is the bluster and bravado of the first nine plagues. He is exposed as less the great and powerful Oz and more a balding old man behind a curtain, or in the updated version, less Lord Voldemort and more Uncle Vernon.
Moses on the other hand, begins the story as a speech challenged fugitive of royal justice who sheds his princely garments for the shepherd’s staff. He pleads with G-d time and again to send “someone” – anyone – else. Yet, he ends up a powerful and confident leader who argues with – and triumphs no less – over G-d himself.
What accounts for these twin transformations? (We’re sure blood, boils, locusts and the like played a role, much as General George Pickett of the ill fated Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg was known to say when asked why he had failed: “I think the Union army had something to do with it.) But is there a deeper lesson to learn here?”
The critical difference between Moses & Pharaoh was not in what they saw, but how they responded to it.
After all, Almighty and Omnipotent G-d can create a cosmos, cause a flood, give Abraham and Sarah a child after a hundred years of waiting, protect Jacob at each turn in a strange land, compel Joseph’s rise from prisoner-slave to viceroy of the world’s superpower and rain fire and ice on the desert. He can turn a river to blood, release savage locusts on Egypt’s crops and with pinpoint accuracy kill firstborn across Egypt while saving an entire slave nation and leading them to a sea where they cross on dry land and their enemies are vanquished forever.
But what He cannot do is compel obedience. That is solely mankind’s. And if G-d wants a people who will serve Him, they need a leader who can model that. A leader who reacts to the world around them, the daily pressures, mini – and major crises with poise, patience and wisdom.
G-d first spoke to Moses after the incident of the burning bush. Moses’ greatness began when he saw a burning bush that was not consumed. More importantly, Moses took a moment to wonder at that. To stop, stare, consider. Others may have seen the bush burning, but were too busy to stop, too untrained to stare, too uncaring to wonder. Because Moses did, G-d spoke with him. The lesson of Moses and the failure of Pharaoh is when G-d sends us a message He wants us to react. Only someone who sees that things are not as they should be can even get to the point of choosing to help or not.
Even today, G-d does send us messages. They likely aren’t miracles by our usual definition though, but: He puts us in places. We witness events, meet people.
We all see things that should cause us to stop, stare, and wonder. What we all saw on TV last week [editor’s note: this was delivered in January 2010] in Port au Prince, Haiti is the 21st century version of a burning bush.
Moses teaches us – and Pharaoh too – it is not enough to stare, to wonder, even to feel pain. That’s not what G-d wanted. When faced with a tragedy, whether devastation of international proportions or a personal catastrophe affecting “just” one person the Jewish response is not why? Rather, Rabbi Soloveichik teaches us, the Jewish response is what? What can I do? How can I help?
G-d told Moses to choose. He did. He chose to help. Moses told Pharaoh to choose. He also chose, but differently. Moses chose to see G-d’s world and react to the tragedies and opportunities therein. Pharaoh chooses to ignore, to continue on autopilot right up until his cavalry hit the sea wall.
For us, today, there are visions all around us. We aren’t insane if we see them – we are crazy if we don’t. G-d gives us a message and it is up to us to decide, what’s our choice?
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha. To read additional articles and learn more about IPA, please visit our main site, Institute for Pubic Affairs.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.