by David Stevens
Va era: The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Moses pleads for help. God remembers and sends Moses to Pharaoh with a message of words and terrible wonders. But Pharaoh won’t let them go.
I’ve read this story probably more than any other in the Torah, and I always see it as the triumph of the Israelites over adversity. But I can’t relate to Moses – he’s really just a mouthpiece for God. And God here isn’t a particular human character either. But reading this today, I find Pharaoh regrettably human and sympathetic.
We see Pharaoh as pure evil for subjugating a people. Maimonides agrees – he says that oppressing strangers within ones midst was a sin so uniquely reprehensible that it could not be repented for. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh won’t repent and will never be forgiven.
But there is another reason that Pharaoh will never repent. It’s too hard. Oppression is an addiction. It is the sin that keeps on sinning. Once Egypt has institutionalized a two-class system, their culture becomes dependent on it. For a nobleman to do servile work would be an insult to his sense of self, a threat to his world view. Class divisions becomes fixed very quickly. Our brains adapt and a new common sense replaces the old common sense. Stereotypes, castes, Jim Crow laws, wage disparities, apartheid, ghettos, pogroms, slavery. Pharaoh’s unique sin is not so unique.
In physics there is a concept of equilibrium. When the forces acting on an object cancel each other out, the object stays where it is. Equilibrium comes in two varieties – stable – think of a marble at the bottom of a large glass bowl – you can nudge the marble but it wall come right back. Then there’s the unstable variety – turn the glass bowl upside down and put the marble on top– a little nudge and the marble is off and not coming back. It seems equality in a society may be an unstable equilibrium. Certainly this was the case with Pharaoh. Once the Israelites were enslaved, their way of life became dependent on it – their status, their culture. An action taken by the Israelites to improve their status results in a counter-action by the Egyptians, and the strict division between the classes is restored. Oppression is a stable equilibrium. The Egyptians would go to any length to maintain the current order. They would go to war to preserve it, as did the French in 1789 and the US in 1861. In fact war may be the only way out of it. That glass bowl needs to be shattered.
So with Pharaoh’s first step – that fateful day when he looked around and saw the Israelites were becoming to big and powerful and that they needed to be dealt with – his fate was sealed.
Our society is far from a just and moral utopia. We are obsessed with stuff, and we want it dirt cheap, which invariably means someone somewhere is working at slave wages. How do we avoid Pharaoh’s fate? The Torah does a very good job of telling us how corrosive that path is, but all the advice we get from Va-era and Maimonides is “Just Say No”. But we are compelled to read this story in public at Shabbat Va-era every year and with our families at the Seder every year, and we are compelled to remember that it is a sin so seductive that once we take hold of it, 10 plagues won’t make us let go.