June 14, 2024
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Pharaoh, the King of De-Nile

Stubbornness, like many human traits, can either work for you or against you. When we think of the Jews who survived atrocious circumstances in the Holocaust, for example, we describe them as tenacious, determined, spirited or purpose-driven. On the other hand, we have examples of leaders who were led by evil intentions and refused to bend or be flexible. Pharaoh is the Torah’s primary example of such a leader. Despite witnessing God’s signs, wonders and various plagues in Egypt, Pharaoh kept acting in a manner doggedly determined to subjugate and destroy the Jewish nation. There are numerous references in this week’s parsha to how stubborn and hard-hearted he was. What makes stubbornness in one instance appear as resilience, while in another instance it appears as foolishness?

The Mayo Clinic describes a personality disorder as occurring when an individual has “a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and/or school.” Pharaoh saw plague after plague, sign after sign, and yet he maintained his rigid pattern of thinking that ultimately led to the destruction of the Egyptian army. He obviously was experiencing a personality disorder based on this definition.

R’ Berel Wein noted that Pharaoh was not convinced of the power or rectitude of the God of Israel. He therefore pursued his stubborn course bitterly and unnecessarily. Pharaoh thus becomes the paradigm for all those tyrants and megalomaniacs who have followed him throughout the centuries. The past century especially has spawned this breed of cruel stubbornness. From the Kaiser to Hitler, from Lenin and Stalin to Chairman Mao, from the Grand Mufti to Sadaam Hussein and Yassir Arafat, the imitators of Pharaoh are clear to see. Stubbornness in the name of evil, in the cause of conquest and hatred of others, is a very negative and dangerous trait. It destroys many innocent people but eventually it destroys the stubborn person as well.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin (71a and 89a) discusses two instances where stubbornness leads to a bad ending. There is the stubborn and rebellious son (“Ben Sorer U’morer”) mentioned in the Torah. This son will not listen to reason and refuses to correct his incorrigible behavior. The Torah also mentions the rebellious elder, the Jewish sage who is so sure he is correct that he will not accede to the majority opinion and insists on having the community follow his ill-advised decrees, to everyone’s detriment. In both instances, the individuals are arrogantly stubborn, one in his wickedness and one in his righteousness. The Torah condemns them both.

Stubbornness can be analogous to a tree fighting the winds in a storm. There are two types of trees, however. There is the banyan tree that is inflexible and will not bend. If the wind blows hard enough this tree will eventually break and fall over. Then there is the palm tree. The palm tree is able to bend almost all the way down and still snap back into the upright position. When past hurricanes visited Florida, many banyan trees were uprooted. However, the palm trees mostly survived.

King David understood this principle in Psalms 92 when he wrote, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree…” He was a wise leader who, unlike Pharaoh, understood that there are times when we need to be determined but there are also times when we need to be flexible.

Perhaps the Torah in this week’s parsha is trying to teach us a lesson about modulating our personality characteristics. Persistence is fine, in the right circumstances. Flexibility is also required at times so that we can change the course of our lives, when necessary.

May we learn the many lessons of Pharaoh. May we be blessed with the quality of persistence, when it is appropriate. However, we also need to be blessed with the ability of being flexible in our thinking, when that becomes necessary and adaptive as well.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is vice president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of New York/New Jersey. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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