Pharaoh was just the first.
One way of looking at Jewish history is as a series of encounters with evil rulers. Pharaoh, whom we have been reading about these past several weeks, was just the first tyrant who persecuted us. Over the millennia, he was followed by Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Antiochus, Titus, Hitler, Stalin, and others too numerous to mention.
Each of those men, without exception, did not act alone. Rather, they represented an entire culture, a comprehensive ideology, which opposed the Jewish people and its religion. They enlisted the assistance of huge constituencies who believed in their teachings, and who followed their example. Without the support of the masses they led, they could not have wrought the havoc they did.
An excellent illustration of this is the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. In this book, the author demonstrates clearly that only because Hitler had the cooperation of so many of his followers, all of whom believed as he did in the need to exterminate our people, was he able to be so tragically successful.
Pharaoh, at the beginning of our history, and Hitler, in our more recent past, were each able to create a culture, a belief system, which pervaded their societies and which enabled them to execute their heinous schemes.
Throughout our history, the enemy was not just one individual, king, or dictator. Rather, it was an entire culture that opposed each of us and everything we stood for.
One lesson of our history is that just as these individual leaders were vanquished, so too did their ideologies fall into oblivion. This is the meaning of the statement of our Sages, “The holy one, blessed be He, does not bring about the downfall of the enemy until He first defeats its gods.”
The gods of a nation, and in some versions, the ministering angels of that nation, represent what we would call today a nation’s culture, its weltanschauung.
Where is this idea expressed in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach? Long ago, I heard a lecture from the late Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik on Beshalach. He based it on the phrase near the very beginning of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1):
“I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted;
the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.”
What is the significance of the horse being thrown into the sea? Why do the Israelites, led by Moses, open their song of praise to the Lord, the theme of Shabbat Shira which we celebrate this week, by singing of the horse’s downfall?
Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that the horse was the symbol of the culture of Egypt. When the Israelites sang of the downfall of both horse and rider, they were expressing their appreciation of the fact that not only were Pharaoh and his slave masters being removed from the scene, but so too was the culture of Egypt coming to an end.
Throughout the Bible, we find the culture of Egypt identified with the horse; the horse is a symbol of militarism, of the ideology that might makes right. The horse is also a symbol of arrogance and pride, fitting companions for militarism.
When God brought down Pharaoh and his cohorts, He was also in effect removing from the world stage a belief system which justified crushing and enslaving other human beings.
The removal, not only of the dictator but of his doctrine, and not only of the tyrant but of his theology, is part of the pattern of history from a Jewish perspective. On Purim, we do not just celebrate Haman’s hanging, but rather the triumph over a culture that had arbitrarily planned to commit genocide. On Hanukkah, we honor a victory over Hellenism and the Greek way of life, not just a victory over an alien occupier of our land.
In more modern times, the triumph over Nazism was not just the defeat of hordes of brutal and sadistic men and women. It was a triumph over a racist and bigoted worldview, and for a short while, many believed that that triumph was permanent.
An excellent example of the horse and the rider both being thrown into the sea is the fate of the ideology of Communism. True, the communist foe was personified in Joseph Stalin and his henchmen, and his several successors. But what eventually came about was the sudden and unexpected total abandonment of the communist approach to economics, to the organization of society, and to the religious and spiritual aspects of humankind.
It is so instructive to read the writings of men who were once avowed communists but later abandoned that philosophy when they realized how corrupt it really was. There is a book edited by Arthur Koestler, who had Jewish roots, entitled The God That Failed. He and the other famous thinkers who contributed essays to that book all saw Communism as a kind of god. Long before their god met his final defeat, they foresaw that defeat was not far away.
When our Sages say that the holy one, blessed be He, first brings about the downfall of the gods of our enemies, they are already using a term for a failed ideology that Arthur Koestler and others used centuries later.
Our Sages spoke of the downfall of the enemy and of its gods, and in this week’s Torah portion, the Bible speaks of the downfall of the rider and of the horse. Different metaphors, but the same idea.
Today, we confront not only “evil kings” and “evil kingdoms” but evil ideologies. Systems of belief, masquerading as sacred religion, which call for murder and mayhem, torture and genocide. We pray to be able to witness both the horse and the rider being cast into the depths of the sea.