Midrash Tanchuma – Re’eh: Embracing our Inner Pharaoh

The State of Israel was established approximately 3,000 years ago by our Founding Father (Note the capital “F”). It was  based on one core principle, dramatically worded  in the opening verse of this weeks Parsha: (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

“(It’s vital that you) see (perceive) this: I present before you today (a choice of 2 life paths:) (A life of) blessing and (a life of) curse: ( A life of) blessing. if you obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d that I instruct you today; and (a life of) curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d, but instead you turn away from the path that I instruct you today, and follow other gods, whom you don’t even know…”

Not a lot of ambiguity here. G-d chose the land of Israel for the Chosen People in order for them to live by the Torah

Midrash Tanchuma sees the central message of the parsha as not only to live by the Torah, but to study Torah. It is very difficult to follow the precepts of the Torah, or embrace its underlying ethical message if you haven’t put in the time to study Torah. The Midrash does not accept the idea that “ignorance is bliss.” Rather it’s tantamount to a denial of G-d’s existence: 

“…anyone who abrogates his obligation for studying Torah, it is as though that person were denying the (existence of the) Holy One, Blessed Be He, because G-d only gave us Torah so that People of Israel would be involved in it day and night,

To drive this message home, Midrash Tanchuma records an instant in time, right after the sin of the Golden Calf, where the world’s existence hung in the balance because it had no meaning and no purpose:

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him, “Moses, I created the world only for Torah, ” But they have exchanged My glory for the image of a bull, and you have broken the tablets; so how will the world continue without Torah? He (Moshe) said to (G-d) Him, “What shall I do?” He (G-d) said to (Moshe)him (Deuteronomy. 10:1), “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first ones.”

Early warning system

If our mandate is to follow the Torah, how does an individual, or the Nation of Israel know when they have ventured off the path and a course correction is needed? Midrash Tanchuma informs us that there is an early warning system built into G-d’s operating system. The Biblical episode that the Midrash chooses as its prooftext, may surprise you.  It’s from Moshe’s warning to Pharaoh in the Exodus story.

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not bring distress to a person until He reveals it (His intentions) to his ear and warns him, so that he can repent. If he repents, this is good. If not, He brings misfortune upon him…. From whom do you learn (this)? From Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Exodus 10:4), “Tomorrow I will bring locusts on your territory.” 

This particular narrative is an interesting choice and presents certain theological difficulties. These verses from Exodus show that there was a clear warning. However these verses also reveal that G-d had “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and G-d declared from the outset the the warning would fall upon deaf ears. So why would this be a fitting prooftext? Exodus 10:2-3)

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My (miraculous) signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My (miraculous) signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”

Perhaps Midrash Tanchuma specifically chose the example of Pharaoh to make a point. In the perfect  world G-d warns us – like a parent warns a child – and there is complete and instant repentance. We take the message to heart, exactly as intended. No excess pride or rebelliousness gets in the way. 

This is certainly not the case in the history of the Jewish People after settling the land. 

The short lived cycle of repentance

When one reads through the early Books of the Prophets, there seems to be a constantly repeating, yet predictable pattern: Idol worship, Philistine terror attacks, severe hardships, repentance, victory over the Philistines, renewed security.  Idol worship, Philistine terror attacks, severe hardships, repentance, victory over the Philistines, renewed security. 

In hindsight it seems perplexing why the Jewish People could not break out of this cycle of sin and repentance. But when you are living in the moment  it’s hard to recognize signals from G-d. True the Jews had Prophets who told them exactly what G-d was thinking. But there were also false prophets who related more popular, politically correct messages which served to confuse many people. This was especially true in the periods preceding the destruction of the First and Second Temple, when many people ignored Jeremiah’s dire prophecies until it was too late. 

In our day it is no less difficult to internalize G-d’s signals – even the ones that have vastly changed our destiny. In a certain sense the Holocaust contains a message that is too big to process. Similarly, our return to our homeland after 2,000 years and the majority of world Jewry living in Israel, is likewise too vast to process. 

So why did Midrash Tanchuma pick Pharaoh as an example of warning  people prior to punishing them? Surely G-d’s warning to Cain before he murdered his brother would have been more poignant? (Genesis 4:7)

“…Sin crouches at the door..”

Perhaps Midrash Tanchuma wants to convey the idea that warnings – even when conveyed, repeatedly,  right to the ears of the person for whom they are intended – are most often ignored. Perhaps G-d “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” doesn’t mean that Pharaoh had any less free choice. Rather, given the ego of the world’s most powerful world leader,  it would be virtually impossible for Pharaoh to heed the warning.  Specially because of the caustic language that G-d instructed Moshe to use:

“Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Send out  my People so that they can worship Me.”

Pharaoh’ s ultimate response to his warning was to expel Moshe and Aaron from the palace. Sounds pretty much the way most humans respond to      G-d’s messages. It doesn’t mean that G-d hardened our heart, rather it’s the reality of the human condition that we tend to wait for a situation to escalate before we respond and  change our behavior.

These verses from Exodus speak to another idea that pertains to Pharaoh and, perhaps to all of us as well. Sometimes it is impossible to perceive the messages G-d is trying to send us. But when you look at someone else’s life, their moral lessons become crystal clear to us. That’s certainly true of Pharaoh as G-d explains explicitly: 

“.… For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My (miraculous) signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My (miraculous) signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”

While we may have difficulty processing our own divine messages, at least we can absorb those messages if we closely observe the way life unfolds for those in our orbit. 

When the right choice is too difficult

Midrash Tanchuma offers an example of G-d removing our ability to choose because G-d knew we would not choose well. According to the Book of Exodus is was due to the sin of the “Ten Spies” that the Jews had to travel through the desert for 40 years before entering the Land of Israel. Midrash Tanchuma presents and an additional reason:

“when they left from Egypt, the seven nations [inhabiting the land] heard that [the Israelites] were coming to inherit [the land]. What did they do? They cut down the trees, stopped up the springs and destroyed the homes, such that if [the Israelites] would enter, they would find nothing (worthwhile there). The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “If I bring them in right away, they will find it desolate, and I promised them that they would find it full of goodness.” What did He do? He held them up in the wilderness forty years”, such that the Canaanites dismissed Israel, saying ‘they are not coming.’ (Hence) they (the Canaanites) arose and planted trees, and they fixed the wells and the cities.”

Perhaps the Midrash is saying that as the divine psychologist, (and One who can see the future) G-d knew that if the Jews came straight to a ruined, promised land, our trust in G-d would be ruined forever. 

Choosing to trust. Choosing to believe. 

No matter how slow we are to respond to G-d’s messages, it seems that our fulfillment of 2 specific laws help G-d to grant us atonement. As Midrash tanchuma states:

“R. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi, “Israel atones for itself before the Omnipresent in the merit of (observing) two commandments: by merit of the Sabbath and by merit of tithes.”

Why these two laws? Perhaps because the Sabbath attests to the fact that G-d created the world. Tithes attest to the fact that G-d created your world, your farm, your profits and losses. If you have the faith to give away 10% of your produce to the (Cohen) priest, then you understand that G-d is the source of income. If you have the faith to not work on the Sabbath, G-d will reward you as well. Like the famous quote attributed to Ahad Ha’am: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Extending tithing to talents

“Honor the Lord with your wealth, With the best of all your income” Proverbs 3:9

The Midrash says that you should honor G-d with whatever your wealth is, including your wealth of talents. If G-d blessed you with beauty, don’t be promiscuous and if you have a beautiful voice, lead the synagogue services. If you love Midrash Tanchuma, write a blog for TOI. 

Once again the echo of the opening verse of the Parsha can be felt here. When you are given talents you are given a choice of what to do with them. 

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”

Our blessings are often the source of our biggest tests in life. When the Jewish People were able to accumulate great wealth it provided the luxury of assimilation. A force for the destruction of Jewish continuity more powerful than Hitler. In our day we are blessed to be back in our ancestral homeland. It’s another test. Let’s take a lesson from Pharaoh and unharden our hearts. Can we live in unity and rediscover the purpose of why this land was chosen for us in the first place.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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