Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Pharaoh’s Unexpected Act of Compassion

When I looked at this week’s Torah portion, Exodus, I could not help but see the parallels with our current times.

We ended the Book of Genesis with a feeling of peace and tranquility. There is harmony between Joseph and his brothers, Jacob dies and blesses his sons. And, then, suddenly, we open the Book of Exodus with this:

Then a new king came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

What is the meaning of the words, “And a new king came to power in Egypt who did not know know Joseph?” What does it mean to know Joseph? What is the last image we have of Joseph in the previous book?

There is an exquisitely moving scene at the end of Genesis, after the death of Jacob. The brothers fear that Joseph will take revenge on them, and they come to ask Joseph for mercy.

Joseph cries and says to them:

 “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph not only displays compassion for his brothers, but he goes even further. He forgives them in a most profound way, holding no grudge, and reassuring them that all is well and was part of a greater Divine plan. He tells them twice, “fear not.” Joseph chooses to act from a place of love rather than fear, and encourages them to do the same.

At the end of Genesis, we are left with a feeling of relief and forgiveness. And also of moral progress.

Now, in Exodus, once again arise fears of the other, who are perceived as a threat, as the brothers of Joseph perceived him to be.

But we know that this story has a happy ending, at least for the Israelites. They leave Egypt and reach Canaan, the Promised Land. So let us read the rest of the story with an eye towards character traits that help bring about this happy ending. Perhaps they can give us some hope for our future as well in these times of transference of power and entering into what feels to some like a frightening unknown.

This story begins with the fear and hatred of Pharaoh, who enslaves the people of Israel, ordering the death of every Hebrew male baby. But Moses is saved. Who and what saves Moses?

First, there is the awe of God of the midwives, Shifra and Puah. “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”

In other words, the midwives put their faith in God over their fear of Pharaoh. They believe in a power stronger, more awesome, than the king’s power. Or, as Joseph did, they put their awe of God, their love, over their fear. They act out of this place of love instead of fear, like Joseph recommended to his brothers to do at the end of the book of Genesis.

Then we have the courage of Yocheved and Amram, who decided to bring a child into the world in spite of it all. And the courage and faith of Yocheved, who sent her son to an unknown destination. She had faith and hope that things could be different, or that someone might have compassion on her child and save him despite the overwhelming hate and fear surrounding her.

And she was right. Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby. She knew he was Jewish, and she went against her father the king’s orders, and brought him home. As it is clearly written in the text: “And she had compassion on him.” And not just simple compassion, but compassion upon this child who had been branded the enemy. Imagine how much courage it took for Pharaoh’s daughter to take this child back to the palace instead of finding him a different home.

So what character traits have we seen displayed so far in this story that save Moses’ life and therefore, eventually, lead to the freeing of the Israelite slaves?

Faith, hope, courage, and compassion.

But let us now return to Pharaoh himself. Did he really not know that this child was a Hebrew? Perhaps not. Maybe his daughter told him she had adopted him from an Egyptian family. But I think not. As it says in the text: “And Moses went out to his brothers.” It seems from this verse that Moses knew the Israelite slaves were his brothers.

It seems that Moses knew he was a Hebrew and that he was raised with that knowledge, knowing he had been spared. Which would mean that Pharaoh knew too, but gave him special protection because he was his daughter’s adoptive son. Pharaoh too lets his love for his daughter overcome his fear of the Hebrews.

And now the story of Moses continues. He kills the Egyptian also from a place of compassion. He had special protections; he was in good standing with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so he clearly did not need to identify with the slave. But his heart went out to the slave, and he saved him from the Egyptian, risking his own life in the process.

So now we can add the compassion and courage of Moses himself to the picture.

Then, Moses flees to Midian, and we have the story of Jethro, and again we see the same kind of acceptance of the other that Pharaoh’s daughter displayed. Zipporah brings Moses home, and Jethro takes him into the family.

Then Pharaoh dies, and the Children of Israel cry out to God for help. And God remembers them, as Shifra and Puah believed would happen.

But what does it mean that God remembers His covenant with the children of Israel? God is not a person. God is beyond all human definition and finite categorization. Human language and character traits cannot be applied to God. God does not remember just as much as God does not forget. So what does that mean, that God remembered?

I think what is happening here is a kind of prayer. Just as we are not really praying “to” God, because God is not separate from us, so too does God not really “remember” us when we feel our prayers have been heard.

The children of Israel, in their misery, suddenly understand from a deep place in their collective unconscious, something like a memory that has been hidden away for a long time, that there is a force greater than them and greater than the Egyptians and Pharaoh. It is as if they are remembering Joseph’s words to their ancestors, years ago: “Fear not!” The Children of Israel suddenly have a glimmer of hope, a spark of faith, that the world can be different.

And when they express this belief in the form of a cry to God, when they place themselves into the hands of this higher power, God “remembers” them. But like I said, God is not a person, not separate from humans. So when God “remembers” the Israelites, they in essence remember themselves.

As the word for a Sufi prayer service, “ziker,” which means a remembrance, connotes so aptly: prayer is a way to remember ourselves and the things we know deep inside ourselves, but of which we need sometimes to remind ourselves. Such as, our pure hearts, our ability to hope for the best and believe in love and compassion.

Why all of a sudden, now, do they believe? I want to argue that the enslaved People of Israel were not able to believe this as a collective. But there were individuals in their time, and not only Israelites, who, like Joseph before them, chose to act from a place of love and compassion rather than hatred and fear. And because of the actions of these brave individuals, their hope seeped into the collective consciousness of the People of Israel as a whole and gave them the courage to believe and to hope.

I will stop here, at Pharaoh’s death. We can learn plenty of lessons from the story of Pharaoh’s reign. What character traits do we need in our times, which, in some way, do feel like a parallel reality?

We need faith and hope, compassion and acceptance of the other, and courage to do what we know is right, even if what we believe goes against the grain of the majority or the powerful masses of those around us.

We also must believe that love can overcome fear, like it seems Pharaoh himself believed deeply in his heart, perhaps even if only in a subliminal way, when he allowed his daughter to adopt Moses — a decision that ultimately subverted his own cruel plan.

But as I pointed out above, the end of this story is a happy ending for the Israelites. But not for the Egyptians. Nor for the Canaanites. Fear and hatred arise again. It seems that they are doomed to keep rising and falling again and again, as we need again and again to be reminded of our past and of the love and good inside all of us, such as that which Joseph displayed to his brothers.

We need to remind ourselves constantly about the only qualities that can remove us from these dark and frightening times: courage, compassion, hope, faith and love.

And as in our story, sometimes the majority can not get to this place on their own. Sometimes we need extraordinary individuals to lead the way, like the midwives, the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses – and, ultimately, Pharaoh himself.

This week, we witness a new president arise in the United States. But we also celebrated, on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just one of these individuals, like Pharaoh’s Daughter and like Moses, who acted in difficult and dark times out of a place of hope and love instead of fear and hatred.

I wish for us all visionary leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who have the courage to dream and put their faith in God and humans. And I hope we will all soon discover that there really is good in every single individual, especially those who have been granted the power to impact the world in a huge way. As we discovered in our Torah portion, Pharaoh himself was capable of a huge act of love that thwarted his own plan and changed the course of history.

And if we do not discover this about our leaders of today, please may we be granted the courage and belief in our own ideals to follow in the footsteps of those brave resisters in our past who took history into their own hands.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: A Guidebook for Couples, is slated for publication in 2019. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.