July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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Pharaoh can be a difficult human to figure out, yet we see a common denominator in many of his peculiar behaviors. To start, after seeing makka after makka destroy his kingdom, he refuses to admit to Hashem. Did he not get the obvious message? After he finally sends them out, once again he strangely believes that Hashem will abandon the Jews and Pharaoh will be able to retrieve them (see Shemot 14:3). After all the miracles Hashem did for the Jewish people, why would Pharaoh think Hashem would abandon them? The sea splits, and the Jews walk through. Pharaoh as well attempts to plunge through the dry land. Didn’t he realize the open miracle Hashem was performing solely for the Jews and clearly not for Pharaoh? For some reason he wasn’t concerned Hashem would return the waters and wipe him out! As if that’s not enough, when Hashem returns the waters and Pharaoh is close to his demise, the Midrash (S”R, 20:1) writes that Pharaoh had deep regrets…he regretted sending the Jews out of Mitzrayim! Pharaoh said, “Oh, how I wish I didn’t send them out, so that they would say about me, ‘See a man like this who stood by his word…’” Even at his very end Pharaoh doesn’t seem to give in to Hashem’s will, but rather stays fixed onto his own perverse will.

Pharoah wasn’t shallow minded in the least. In fact, he was an extremely wise person (see Ramban 5:3, Chochma U’mussar (1:140), and Daat Torah, Shemot, p. 66, 67). How could it be that he made choices like these and thought in ways that were clearly irrational, against all logic and fact? Moreover, Ramban (ibid) writes that Pharaoh knew and recognized Hashem. If so, how could it be that Pharaoh wouldn’t give in to the many quite obvious “signs” that Hashem wanted the Jews out of mitzrayim?

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Ma’amarim 1) highlights a central pathology in the lives of many wise people and renowned philosophers as to how it could be that they never followed through on a life of adherence to Hashem’s will. As we know, there’s two basic forces within the human, one that seeks good, and one that seeks the absence of it. This grapple of nature that we all experience on a constant basis never ceases, and while the former raises us up beyond our limited scope of self-serving wants and needs, the latter can tunnel our vision to a life that becomes oblivious and ignorant of Hashem’s will. Many wise people, no matter how great their IQ, are no less saved from this tug of war and they just as easily can get caught into living a life absorbed with themselves and their own pleasures. As this may not exactly fit into Hashem’s will, one by default can thus come to ignore and deny the presence of Hashem and the life He wants us to live. The Rambam (Pe’er Hador, 143) writes that Aristotle had the wisdom of someone [right] below that of someone with prophetic vision. Yet, Rav Elchanan writes that we see even someone with immense wisdom can lose sight of Hashem if they choose to pursue their own desires.

Hence, Pharaoh may have known Hashem, but Pharaoh may have been caught up in his own desires and wanting things his way, which blinded him to not see things rationally. So much so that his regrets at the end of his life were focused on how he could’ve gotten more honor.

Our middot, nature, and overall pursuits are something we need to be aware of and in control of, and if not, on a conscious and even subconscious level they may lead us to think and choose that which is not ideal. This remains true not just but for people who are far removed from Torah, but even people who are heavily involved in Torah. In this parsha, when the Jews are leaving Mitzrayim, the pasuk says that Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef (13:19). Because of this, the Gemara (Sota 13a) applies the pasuk—“the wise-hearted take mitzvot” (Mishlei, 10:8)—to Moshe. Was Moshe the only “wise-hearted” individual amongst Bnei Yisrael? Weren’t there many highly righteous and pious people as well? Why didn’t they take part in this treasured mitzvah? R’ Henoch Leibowitz (Chiddushei Halev, Beshalach) explains that indeed there were people of tremendous spiritual stature. However, deep down they had a desire to amass the treasures in Mitzrayim, and this led them to think this can override the mitzvah involving Yosef’s bones.

We see from here the depth of a bias, in that even for highly righteous people it can create an incorrect way of thinking and lead one to believe it’s thus appropriate to act upon it.

The midrash (B”R 94:5) describes a scene where Yaakov had a one-to-one conversation with his very own self. As he was leaving Eretz Yisrael on his way to unite with his son Yosef, he took a pit stop in Be’er Sheva. Why? The Midrash writes that Yaakov paused to question his motivations for leaving Eretz Yisrael and going to Egypt. He told himself, “Perhaps I am doing this for physical pleasure.” He then confirmed to himself that this wasn’t so, but rather he had a responsibility to go to Egypt.

Not only do we see from here that even someone as great as Yaakov as well is susceptible to potentially being led by improper motivations, R’ Leibowitz (ibid) points out that we see the beneficial aspect of speaking out and specifying what could potentially be our underlying biases and motivations when undertaking a certain course of action.

A human is full of various emotions, wants and aspirations. And at the same time, we need to ensure they don’t override or interfere with what is objectively right and what Hashem wants from us. It can be a struggle, yes, but when we are introspective, self aware, honest, and are able to clearly articulate our emotions and motivations, we are able to have a clearer picture between what we may want and what actually may be right. I wondered if perhaps this is one way to understand the title of “wise-hearted” in reference to Moshe in regard to the remains of Yosef. Emotion and desire is represented by the heart. One who is wise-hearted can perhaps mean one who achieved an intelligence to know and identify the exact emotions and motivations that lie in one’s heart. Moshe may have also been pulled toward the “cash,” but because he was perhaps aware of this and attained the wisdom of identifying his motivations, he was thus able to see things objectively and choose what was right.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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