Know Your Enemy: Moses, Pharaoh, and Radical Islam

It is a precarious time to be alive. The world around us seems to grow more dangerous and chaotic every day. While this can be said about all of humanity, this looming anxiety is even more pronounced for us as Jews. In an article entitled: “We are all the Innocents” by Mayim Bialik, the Jewish lead actress on the “Big Bang Theory,” she writes:

“All we want to be is part of the world. Unique, but also universally accepted and assimilated. Our religion allows for it. Our sages preach it. Our greatest minds thrived on it. I hated last week’s events as a human; to see what humans can do to one another brought me to tears. I hated last week as a person of faith who believes in living by a code of decency and goodness that our Creator established for us on this planet. But mostly, I hated last week as a Jew.  On the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, I posted on social media the following: #JeSuisCharlie. We are all Charlie. Especially the artists and satirists and creative minds who make our living by creating and challenging and questioning with artistic expression. We are those artists. We all are the innocents executed in the name of religion, transformed into representatives of liberty and freedom. On the day of the attacks on the Jews…It hit me right in the gut: I am a Jew“.

It seemed to be a wakeup call for the world, millions marched in the streets of Paris in the name of peace and personal freedom. People called it the 9/11 of France, they said that now they’ll finally get it. But was it a wakeup call? Has the world finally gotten the message? Sadly, it seems that the answer is a resounding NO. The world still refuses to publicly state what they privately all know. World leaders, including our own in this very country, will not name the evil – they refuse to call it by its name -Radical Islamic Terrorism. Instead, they say that it’s extremism. Have any of us recently heard of any other form of “extremism” that has been menacing the world from the very beginning of the 21st Century? They also say, “this is not Islam,” that the perpetrators of these heinous acts are “not Islamic.” Try telling that to the Muslims terrorists that are doing these horrific things while praising Allah and thereby (in their minds) assuring themselves a place in Muslim Paradise in the next world.

It is maddening to think about the willful blindness and public denial about the root cause of all the havoc being wreaked upon the world. But one has to imagine, though, that out of the face of the cameras and reporters – world leaders and people of good conscience really know, in their heart of hearts, what and who the issue really is.

The insistence on maintaining a public “politically correct view” when talking about Islam and Muslim extremism, while only privately recognizing the issue, is truly crippling our society and it could ultimately lead to the undoing of the freedom-loving world. Make no mistake, this is the great challenge of our generation. While I’m sure there are millions and millions of good, law-abiding, peace-loving Muslims throughout the world – there are also millions upon millions who are intent upon destroying everyone and everything in their path until they dominate the world. As President El-Sisi, the Muslim leader of Egypt boldly charged in a New Year’s address to Muslim scholars at a major Islamic University:

“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire “umma” [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!…Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands”.

It is this dissonance in the Western World between our public stances and private thoughts as well as Sisi’s call in the Muslim world for a “religious revolution” that is an important theme in the Exodus story, particularly as it pertains to Moshe’s encounters with Pharaoh. There seems to be two arenas of encounter between Pharaoh and Moshe. There are public encounters and private encounters. Sometimes, Moshe is told to meet him publicly at the Nile in front of all his servants and subjects; yet, at other times, God instructs him to meet him in the palace – at home – within his inner chambers and out of the public eye. It begs the question, why is there not just one meeting place? Why the proverbial dance between the public and the private? Furthermore, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (as quoted in an article by Rabbi Ari Kahn; Echoes of Eden, pps. 72-73) points out that God uses one term when telling Moshe to meet Pharaoh in a public space and a different term when instructing him to seek Pharaoh out in private. When telling Moshe to meet Pharaoh at the Nile it says “Leich El Paroh – Go to Pharoah;” whereas, when God tells Moshe to go to him in his private quarters, the Torah says “Bo El Paroh – Come to Pharaoh.” What do the different terms denote?

The Rav (Rav Soloveitchik) explains that there was a dual, two-pronged approach at play in Moshe’s sequence of encounters with Pharaoh as he entreats him and attempts to convince him to “let our People go.” There were the public encounters at the Nile, the seat and symbol of his power, where God said “Leich El Paroh” – go at Pharaoh, the intransigent emperor, and let him know who’s boss. Let him know that our God is mightier than him, his gods and his Nile. Confront him, challenge him and let him know that we are ready to do battle, if need be. On the other hand, there were the private encounters at home in his palace, where God said “Bo El Paroh” – go to Pharaoh, the human being. Go into his home and speak to him as an “ordinary man, a person, a father, a husband…tell him how wrong it is to throw a child into the water…tell him about our forefather Abraham, about morality. Appeal to your shared humanity and perhaps “he might respond” to that approach. The Rav says that we can glean this subtext from the text itself, because “we use the word “Bo” when we ask someone to come closer.”

This take on the story is truly incredible. Imagine this scene for a moment; Moshe and Pharaoh, arch-enemies and bitter rivals with polar opposite worldviews, having a private heart-to-heart about the value of human life and the future of their two peoples. Sadly, both the public approach of intimidation and the private approach of appealing to his humanity, in his own home, where his vulnerability as a person most fully played out – did not sway him. This was the tragedy of Pharaoh, the man, and the downfall of Pharaoh, the failed leader of ancient Biblical Egypt.

His refusal to acknowledge, publicly, what every person must instinctively know, privately, was that when you boil it down to the basics – everyone on this earth is ultimately the same in our shared humanity – we are all fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. We are all people just looking to find our share of happiness and meaning in this world. Pharaoh tragically could not separate himself from his public persona as an all-powerful godlike religious figure and this led to his undoing as both a leader and a person.

This lesson, I believe, is ever instructive to us in our day and age. Nothing – no religious sentiment, political perspective, professional persona, or perceived righteousness or superiority – can ever come in the way of the recognition our common humanity. The irony of the world today is that the fear of insulting the humanity of others is what’s crippling us in our fight to truly protect humanity. Calling Islamic terrorism what it is – is not putting down the humanity of Muslims; it is calling out a specific religious interpretation of Islam – that is destructive to humanityin order to save humanity. And what is the only way that we can emerge from this scourge on our society? It is if at some point soon, the Muslim world and the world as a whole, does as Moshe did – appeal to our shared humanity.

While we all may publicly hold different views and opinions about everything under the sun – at the end of the day, a true belief in our respective religions is that we are all created “B’Tzelem Elokim – In the image of God.” If we continue to stand on ceremony, refusing to acknowledge this obvious fact – all will be lost. I pray that our world wakes up and heeds this lesson, sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern currently serves as the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, in New York. He has also served in a number of educational capacities in Westchester area schools. He is a member of several Rabbinic organizations, both communal and national. He is committed to fostering a sense of Ahavat Yisrael, Ahavat Torah, and love for the State of Israel within the hearts, minds and souls of the Jewish people, everywhere.