J.J Gross

Bo/Beshalah: Pharaoh — desperate, insecure and in need of honor (kavod)

The triad of Parshiot Va’era-Bo-Beshalah are but a single symphony with well defined movements.

The conundrum regarding G-d’s ‘hardening’ Pharaoh’s heart, and yet making Pharaoh take the blame for a recalcitrance that is then not his fault has been debated ad infinitum.  Yet, a careful reading of the text, in particular this aspect of G-d’s ostensibly heavy hand, as well as Pharaoh’s general behavior pattern, can lead one to a far more nuanced and infinitely more interesting perspective regarding both the contemporary Egyptian monarch of the Exodus saga and G-d’s role in his decision-making process.

It is difficult for us to shake loose from the Bible story images imprinted on our minds as children – the one-dimensional cartoon characters that rivet an infant’s imagination but insult the adult intelligence. The very term “Pharaoh” becomes a synonym for a wicked “frogs here, frogs there” monarch even though there were many Pharaohs each surely as unique as a fingerprint and often – as exemplified by the Pharaoh of Joseph versus the Pharaoh of our current triad of parshiot – polar opposites.

In Parshat Shemot we read that “There arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus1:5).  The second half of this verse seems superfluous.  After all, the old generation had passed on.  It was not only the new king who knew not Joseph, it was the progeny of Joseph and his brothers who knew not Joseph as well.

I would suggest that these words “who knew not Joseph” refers to a different kind of knowledge. This refers to an awareness, a discernment. In other words, a new king arose who would not be capable of recognizing a Joseph if he were standing in front of him.  A new king who lacks the strength of character, the intelligence, the intuition and above all the self-confidence to ‘know’ a Joseph when he sees one. A king who is so weak, he does not know how to delegate, is indecisive in extremis, yet despite – or more likely because of – this insecurity he trusts no one, hence becoming a micromanager who makes every decision himself. Inevitably, these are the wrong decisions.

Indeed, Exodus seems to usher in a precipitous drop in the quality of the Pharaohs, and in these opening parshiot the Egyptian monarchy moves from poor to dismal.

Joseph’s Pharaoh comes off as an enlightened monarch, one who freely solicits opinions, and who is a master delegator. Disturbed by a double dream that appears predictive, “he calls all the wizards and wise men of Egypt” (Genesis 41:8) to seek their input.  When they are unable to decode his dream, this Pharaoh is not beyond taking the advice of his cup-bearer, a former convict, and yanks Joseph out of the dungeon.

When Joseph clarifies the dream, Pharaoh is instantly ready to elevate this alien to the second most prestigious position in Egypt, and entrust him with the management of the entire economy.

Who can fail to be impressed by such a Pharaoh who has both strengths of character and humility —  who immediately acknowledges Elohim’s decisive role in the events that are about to unfold?   “And Pharaoh said to his servants,‘Is there (another) man like this in whom there is the spirit of Elohim?’” (Genesis 41:38)

By contrast, when the Exodus Pharaoh is confronted by Moses and Aaron we read; “And Pharaoh also called for wise men and magicians” (Exodus 7:11). It appears as if he sent a messenger out to the street to pick up a few freelance snake charmers. He was not responding to the purpose of Moses’ mission, simply attempting to blow him off with a similar feat of prestidigitation.  Clearly, he had no advisors of his own, as he did not rely on anyone else to influence his policy decisions, such as they were.

Parenthetically, it is also evident that the Exodus Pharaoh has an open door, anyone can waltz into his chambers. He does not discriminate. His insecurity is such that there is no select cohort of advisors. Everyone is welcome to put in their two cents – not that he ever listens. At the same time, he is also loath to punish or eliminate those who challenge him. Whether it is Shifra and Puah, Moses and Aaron, or the vagrant snake charmers who eventually would tell him to get a grip.  This is evidence of the fact that he is afraid of his own shadow and dares not to silence dissenters and opponents. All this is characteristic of a very small, vain man obsessed with his title and starved for kavod (honor) which a man like this confuses with genuine respect.

As we proceed in Va’erah and Bo, Pharaoh’s supercilious and vapid personality – and its attendant insecurity and desperate need for ‘kavod ‘become his undoing.  The plague of lice makes it clear to all that “This is the finger of G-d” אצבע אלהים היא (Exodus  8:15), yet Pharaoh’s insecurity-based hubris causes him to remain adamant.

The root KBD כבד that is used in the opening of Parshat Bo to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is just one of the terms the Torah deploys to describe this phenomenon of Pharaoh changing his mind. In this context it is normally understood as meaning “heavy” לבו את הכבדתי אני כי – for I have heavied his heart – Exodus 10:1)

The כבד word appears earlier in Parshat Vaera as well: ויאמר ה  כבד לב פרעה מאן לשלח העם – And G-d said Pharaoh’s heart is כבד, he refuses to send the People (7:14); וירא פרעה כי היתה הרוחה והכבד את לבו ולא שמע אלהים -And Pharaoh saw there was a respite and his heart was KBD and he did not listen to them( 8:11);   ויכבד פרעה את לבו גם בפעם הזאת   – And Pharaoh כבד his heart this time as well (8:28);ויכבד לב פרעה – And Pharaoh’s heart was כבד (9:7); and finally  ויכבד לבו הוא ועבדיו – And his heart was כבד, he and his servants(9:34).

In Parshat Va-era the other term used is ChZK חזק, which is understood to mean strong or strentghtened,e.g. (7:13 and 9:35 ) ויחזק לב פרעה.

Another term used but only once is KASHEH קשה to harden; e.g. ואני אקשה את לב פרעה  – And I shall קשה the heart of Pharaoh (7:3).

Interestingly, when the words קשה and חזק are used it is clearly G-d who is making this happen. By contrast, until the opening of Parshat Bo the term כבד seems to imply something that occurs naturally to Pharaoh or something he does to himself. It is not something that G-d implants in him.

I would like to suggest that כבד does not mean heavy, and חזק does not mean strong.   After all, what exactly is a heavy heart?  In our parlance a heavy heart signifies remorse, sadness, sensitivity.  This is hardly the case here. Rather I suggest the root כבד here refers to ‘honor’, as in kavod, while חזק means ‘reinforced’, as in G-d (merely) reinforces Pharaoh’s natural inclination.

Unlike the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time – a great and mighty king who is strong enough and smart enough to acknowledge the wisdom of others and the existence of G-d, this Pharaoh is a weak, insecure personality. Hence his diminished self-confidence makes him crave kavod – and as we know, people who seek kavod are attempting to fill a gaping hole in their self-esteem because, indeed, they rarely merit esteem.

When Pharaoh reneges on his agreements to allow the Israelites to leave, it is G-d’s doing insofar as he is reinforcing who Pharaoh is to begin with. At other times it is Pharaoh’s puny ego only, desperate for kavod, that gets in his way.

Indeed at the very end of Parshat Vaera, in two sequential verses, we have “Vayakhbed libo”  ויכבד לבו (passive) – and his heart was in need of kavod, followed immediately by “Vayechazek lev Paroh”, ויחזק לב פרעה (active) And He (G-d) reinforced Pharaoh’s heart.

Until now Pharaoh has amply demonstrated his hunger for kavod, so now G-d plays Pharaoh’s game and ups the ante – by getting directly involved in this little man’s lust for honor, now that the king is no longer able even to listen to his own people who pretty much have told him that the game is over.

Now let us focus on the word “באBO”.  This is unusual – G-d tells Moshe for the second time to “come” to Pharaoh.  The proper term should be “לך LEKH”– go.

I would suggest that BO is a sign of disrespect, it is informal. “Come to Pharaoh” drips with contempt.  And indeed, when Moshe leaves Pharaoh’s presence in this instance it says;     (10:16) ויפן ויצא מאם פרעהת, Moses turns his back to Pharaoh and makes his exit – a total sign of contempt to any monarch, and proof that Moses knows he has nothing to fear from this royal midget.

(Interestingly this precise term was used to show Pharaoh’s earlier contempt for Moses in Parshat Vaera  ויפן פרעה ויבא אל ביתו.  (7:23, and Pharaoh turned his back and came to his house. (Curiously, here too the word “BO” is used; “va-yavo” – the same juxtaposition of BO and Vayifen as we have in Parshat Bo.)

Clearly the onset of Parshat Bo marks a turning point. It is the start of the end game. By now even Pharaoh’s servants know it’s over and have no fear of disrespecting him by saying so; “… Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?”(Exodus 10:7).  But Pharaoh holds out stubbornly on account of his pathetic ego.  Yet, despite his hanging on to his vestigial kavod, Pharaoh is beaten.  Moses can now treat him with utter contempt, without any fear of retribution. Pharaoh’s days are numbered, and everyone knows at this point that the emperor is naked.

From here on, G-d simply plays with Pharaoh. We no longer see the word כבד in reference to the Egyptian monarch, merely G-d doing his חזק number. He does this both to humiliate Pharaoh and – in so doing – to aggrandize Himself to an Israelite nation sorely in need of spiritual re-tooling before their redemption.

Pharaoh makes an utter fool of himself and demonstrates the pinnacle of his vacillating, indecisive personality – just as his servants have read him the riot act – in four sequential verses (Exodus 10:8-1l).

  1. [Thereupon,] Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, worship the Lord your God. Who and who are going?”
  2. Moses said, “With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our cattle we will go, for it is a festival of the Lord to us.”
  3. So he [Pharaoh]said to them, “So may the Lord be with you, just as I will let you and your young children out. See that evil is before your faces.
  4. Not so; let the men go now and worship the Lord, for that is what you request. And he chased them out from before Pharaoh.

Notice the flip-flopping – hardly the mark of real confidence and power.

What is emerging from the text is that Pharaoh is arrogating for himself the characteristics and entitlements that belong only to the Almighty. G-d indeed has the right to demand כבד from humankind, because G-d is beyond ego and hubris. By honoring G-d we acknowledge our own diminutiveness.  In fact, the only other party we are told to honor is our parents, and for similar reasons. They, too, are our creators, hence, ultimately they are entitled to kavod. As we are instructed in the Ten Commandments to “honor (כבד) your father and your mother …”

Pharaoh further arrogates the right to behave like Elohim  when he says to Moses after the plague of darkness; “Go away from me! Beware! You shall no longer see my face, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die!” (Exodus 10:28). These sentiments are virtually identical to what G-d later says to Moses; “You cannot see my face: for no man shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:11.

Once the plagues are over and the Israelites have left the borders of Egypt, the KBD reappears. Only this time it is G-d who uses the term in self-reference;

ואכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו  And I will be כבד in Pharaoh and his entire army (Exodus 14:4 and again in verse 17). And finally, yet again in verse 18; וידעו מצרים כי אני ה בהכבדי בפרעה ברכבו ובפרשיו  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I will be glorified (כבד) through Pharaoh, through his chariots, and through his horsemen.

We have come full circle. The supercilious king who attempts to camouflage his insecurity and weakness with tough words and recalcitrance has his ultimate degradation, while G-d the Almighty rightfully claims the כבד – the glory and respect to which no human being is entitled.

Perhaps this should serve as a lesson to the legions of kavod-seekers (honor seekers) for whom their names cannot appear often enough or large enough; who cannot be honored at enough dinners, feted at enough testimonials, showered with enough glorious adjectives by fawning fund raisers, blizzarded with enough blessings by greedy religious ‘leaders’.  Do they realize how silly they look? How the whole world knows they are merely buying the sanctimonious encomiums of sycophants?

Footnote to Parshat Vaera and Parshat Bo

For the first three plagues (Blood, Frogs, Lice) G-d instructs Moses to instruct Aaron to use his rod in order to bring on the plagues. In fact this instruction to delegate the rod to Aaron begins with the miracle of the serpent.

This seems rather odd considering that Aaron’s role is primarily to serve as spokesperson on account of Moses’ speech impediment. After all one doesn’t use a rod with one’s mouth.

It is only for the third plague, Lice, that G-d actually instructs Moses to have Aaron “strike” with the rod. For the first two plagues the instruction is merely to reach forth with it. And yet Aaron, in the case of Blood, apparently goes the extra step by striking the waters of the Nile. For the plague of Frogs Aaron seems to obey the letter of G-d’s instructions and merely reaches out over the Nile with the rod.

Why is it that the symbolically violent act of striking is delegated to Aaron (assuming he was not violating G-d’s instructions by striking the Nile in the first place?)

As we know, Moses was never allowed to set foot in the Land of Israel. This permanent exile was his punishment for striking the rock (in order to bring forth drinking water) when G-d instructed him to merely speak to it.

Perhaps we can better understand that draconian punishment when we realize that the kind of leader Moses was meant to be required of him to be a purely spiritual personality. His role was to lead by example of his humility and his non-violence. Hence it was left to Aaron to act in a manner that was inappropriate for Moses.

This is why it was left for Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile and the ground before Pharaoh, in order to establish and maintain Moses’ purely spiritual persona.

This helps explain why Moses was punished in such an absolute manner. The very moment he acted in a violent way he lost his credibility qua Moses, thereby rendering him unfit to continue his leadership into The Land of Israel. By striking the rock Moses was not merely disobeying the specific order to “speak” to the rock, he was violating a trust that G-d had set in place at the very outset in Egypt. Understood in this context, his sin acquires far greater dimension.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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