The greatest challenge of our time according to Natan Sharansky

During an interview with the legendary refusenik Natan Sharansky last year, I asked him what in his view was the greatest challenge of our times.

“Arrogance,” he responded.

“The degree of certainty and attachment people have to their own views, paths, and opinions, to the exclusion of all others.”

An admirer of a certain British Prime Minister once told John Bright, a 19th century British Statesman: “You ought to give the Prime Minister credit for what he accomplished, as he is a self-made man.”
“I know he is,” Bright retorted, “and he certainly worships his creator.”
How fitting an introduction to Pharaoh, quoted in Scripture as saying about the Nile, the main source of the Egyptian economy: “The river is mine, and I have made it. My river is my own, and I made myself.”
So fixated was he on presenting himself as omnipotent, that he had spread a rumour that, in his divinity, unlike all other members of the human race, he never needed to relieve himself.
From this and numerous other tendencies, it becomes clear that Pharaoh was a pathetic egomaniac hellbent on maintaining a veneer of invincibility.
Incidentally, like many egomaniacs, whose narcissism and vanity derives from insecurity, Pharaoh, says the Talmud, was a midget, which can be interpreted allegorically to mean that he suffered from low self-esteem.
The noted English Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once said: “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature.”
He could not have been more mistaken.
In a hilarious expression of Divine satire, G-d tells Moses to confront Pharaoh: “in the morning; for behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile…”
What was the significance of the timing and location of their showdown?
Says Rashi: Pharaoh had deified himself and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he would go out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs.”
Hence, the first cracks in Pharaoh’s deification came from Moses being made privy to Pharaoh’s human limitations and bodily needs.
Only by recognising his vulnerabilities and coming to terms with the fact that he was human like all people and therefore imperfect, could he begin the process of rehabilitation.
Alas, as we come to learn over the course of the ten plagues, not only was Pharaoh not humbled upon confronting his powerlessness, his heart was hardened with each passing plague.
While I haven’t seen this mentioned in the classical commentaries, it is striking that one of the terms used to describe Pharaoh’s hardening heart, “Kavad Libo” which translates as “his heart became heavy,” appears etymologically linked to the hebrew word for honour, which is Kavod.
This may allude to the fact that what motivated Pharaoh to defy all logic and continue down a path towards self-destruction and national ruin was an obstinacy fuelled by vanity and honour.
Like many despots throughout history, he would be willing to bring down his own nation and family rather than admit to his vulnerability.
Indeed, even the threat and eventual death of Pharaoh’s own firstborn son was not enough to move him to let the Jewish go, and it was only his fear for his own life that broke his resolve…
How poignant therefore is the scene described by the Midrash in which Pharaoh survives the drowning of his entire army, kept alive by G-d intentionally in order to witness his entire world and empire literally going under.
How utterly opposite a portrait and personality do we encounter in Moses, whose ironic claim to fame is his humility.
Of all his extraordinary qualities, the one which the Torah saw fit to highlight, embodying as it does his essential quality from which all else derived, was his humility:
“Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.”
Indeed, Moses first response to G-d’s invitation to leadership is: “מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ” – ”Who am I that I should go?”
And in complete counter-distinction to Pharaoh who passes himself off as a man with no limitations, Moses is ever-conscious of his own, imploring G-d, “I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
It was Moses’ humility that sensitised him to others and allowed him to put their needs and dreams before his own, and it was his profound self-awareness and modesty that allowed him throughout 40 years of leadership to remain open to criticism and change.
For example, a comment from his father-in-law caused him to overhaul his entire system of administration, and on numerous occasions, including a group of people who missed out on offering the pascal lamb, and a group of women who wanted to effect change in the laws of inheritance, Moses listens with empathy and understanding and brings their petition to G-d, leading to monumental changes in Jewish law.
Remarkably, it was in their way of encountering something new for the first time, their open versus close-mindedness, that Moses sharply distinguished himself from Pharaoh as well.
Upon being told about a new deity by Moses, Pharaoh declared: “Who is this Lord you speak of?”
Says the Midrash: “Pharaoh told Moshe and Aron, “I have searched for his name throughout my archives, but I have not found him.”
Pharaoh reminds us of individuals who think they know everything there is to know about anything, and when told about something they didn’t know, they either claim they already knew it, or dismiss it as nonsense because they take offence at the notion that there is something of value that they somehow missed.
The above sheds light on a deeper meaning of the words the Torah uses to introduce us to Pharaoh for the first time: “A new king arose who did not know Joseph.”
Joseph means “growth” and thus may mean, a new king arose who did not value the virtue of Yosef, of self-development and refinement which require a humble spirit and an open mind.
Contrast this with Moses’ first encounter with G-d at the burning bush.
“Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father in law” and sees, “a flame of fire from within the thorn bush.” So Moses said, “Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?”
Moses embodies curiosity and wonder, inspired rather than insulted by learning something new.
Indeed, as I’ve elaborated elsewhere, from the next verse in the Torah, “The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and He said, “Moses, Moses!” – we might posit that it was this very sense of marvel and mystery, this spirit of exploration and open mindedness, and non-dogmatism, which endeared him to G-d, and made him fit to lead.
The Chasidic masters would say that the better we come to understand the Torah, the better we come to know ourselves.
We each possess an inner Pharaoh and Moses.
We were each created with the capacity for hubris and humility, egocentricity and empathy, vulnerability and vainglory.
At birth we were each gifted an open mind and heart which can be stretched, shut, shuttered, or pried back open.
The good news is that we cannot be hardwired (dictionary definition: make (a function) a permanent feature in a computer by means of permanently connected circuits, so that it cannot be altered by software); merely wired and rewired.
Every day and throughout each day we face numerous choices of how to behave and who to become.
Will we surrender to our inner insecure-stubborn-always-right-know-it-all-autocratic Pharaoh, or will we allow our humble-curious-listening-understanding-open minded-hearted-spirited inner Moses reign over our inner world?
Let’s choose well today.
“Let my people grow!”
About the Author
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children. Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom, A Time to Heal, and Positivity Bias, and an upcoming book titled "People of the Word: 5o words that shaped Jewish thought"
Related Topics
Related Posts