J.J Gross

Parshat Beshalah: Pharaoh’s pathetic pursuit of honor (כבוד)

Oveר the course of 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 the that “This is the finger of G-d”   אצבע אלהים היא (Exodus  8:15), yet Pharaoh’s insecurity-based arrogance 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” כי אני הכבדתי את לבו– for I have heavied his heart (Exodus 10:1)

The KBDכבד word appears earlier in Parshat Vaera as well ויאמר ה’ כבד לב פרעה מאן לשלח העם – And G-d said Pharaoh’s heart is KBDכבד/ he refuses to send the People (7:14);

וירא פרעה כי היתה הרוחה והכבד את לבו ולא שמע אלהם – And Pharaoh saw there was a respite and his heart was KBD כבד and he did not listen to them (8:11)

ויכבד פרעה את לבו גם בפעם הזאת– And Pharaoh KBDכבד his heart this time as well (8:28)

ויכבד לב פרעה– And Pharaoh’s heart was (9:7) KBDכבד

and finally

ויכבד לבו הוא ועבדיו– And his heart was KBDכבד, 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. ויחזק לב פרעה (7:13)

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

Interestingly, when the words kashehקשה and chazakחזק are used it is clearly G-d who is making this happen. By contrast, until the opening of Parshat Bo the term KBDכבד 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 KBDכבד does not mean heavy, and chazakחזק 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 KBDכבד here refers to ‘honor’, as in kavodכבוד, while CHZKחזק 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 כבוד – and as we know, people who seek kavod are attempting to fill a gaping hole in their self-esteem because, indeed, they do not merit esteem  from others.

When Pharaoh reneges on his agreements to allow the Israelites to leave, it is G-d’s doing insofar as he is reinforcing (חזק) who Pharaoh is to begin with. At other times it is Pharaoh’s puny ego only, desperate for כבוד, 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 כבוד, followed immediately by “Vayechazek lev Paroh”   ויחזק לב פרע (active) And He (G-d) reinforced Pharaoh’s heart.

Until now Pharaoh has amply demonstrated his hunger for כבוד, 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 jig is up.

Now let us focus on the word “בא–BO”.  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;  ויפן ויצא מאם פרעה    (10:16) 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 Va-era:  ויפן פרעה ויבא אל ביתו (7:23), and Pharaoh turned his back and came to his house. (Curiously, here too the word בא is used; “ויבא” – the same juxtaposition of בא and ויפן 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 are unafraid to disrespect him by saying; “… Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?”   שלח את האנשים ויעבדו את ה אלהיהם (Exodus 10:7).  But Pharaoh holds out stubbornly on account of his pathetic ego.

Yet, despite his hanging on to his vestigial כבוד, Pharaoh is licked.  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 KBDכבד in reference to the Egyptian monarch, merely G-d doing his ChZKחזק number. He does this both to humiliate Pharaoh and – in so doing – to agrandize 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)

ויושב את משה ואת אהרון אל פרעה ויאמר אלהם לכו עבדו את ה אלהיכם מי ומי ההלכים

ויאמר משה בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך בבנינו ובבנותנו בצאננו ובבקרנו נלך כי חג ה לנו

ויאמר אלהם יהי כן ה עמכם כאשר אשלח אתכם ואת טפכם ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם.

לא כן לכו נא הגברים ןעבדו את ה כי אתה אתם מבקשים ויגרש אתם מאת פני פרעה.

  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 nowand 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  כבוד 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 כבוד. As we are instructed in the Ten Commandments to “honor (כבד) your father and your mother …”

Pharaoh further arrogates the right to behave like Elo-him when he says to Moses after the plague of darkness;  ויאמר לו פרעה לך מעלי השמר לך אל תוסף ראות פני כי ביום ראתך פני תמות  “Go away from me! Beware! You shall no longer see my face, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die!”  (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”   ויאמר לא תוכל לראת את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי (33:20) <Thank you Prof. Melissa Raphael for adding this last point>

Once the plagues are over and the Israelites have left the borders of Egypt, the KBDכבד reappears. Only this time it is G-d who uses the term in self-reference;  ואכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו – And I will be KBDכבד 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 honored (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 KBDכבד – 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?


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.