Thirty-Five Centuries Later, It’s Still Pharaoh vs. Moses

From rulers of Egypt we became its slaves because we didn’t want to be Jews—united above hatred.

The story of the liberation of the Hebrews from enslavement has captured the imagination of billions of people throughout history. The Exodus has come to embody man’s struggle for freedom from oppression and injustice. But there is something odd about the Exodus: The Torah commands each and every one of us to see ourselves each day as though we have just come out of Egypt. Why is this story so important? Could it be that underneath the epic tale lies a deeper, cryptic meaning?

Jews cross Red Sea pursued by Pharoah. Fresco from Dura Europos synagogueWikimedia Commons

If we look into the texts of our sages throughout the ages, we will indeed find that the exodus from Egypt details a process that we as Jews went through, are going through again today, and which impacts the lives of Jews and non-Jews the world over. If we understand this process better, we will find compelling answers to many of today’s most pressing questions for the Jews, such as the essence of Judaism and why there is anti-Semitism.

Abraham’s Secret

When Joseph’s brothers went into Egypt, they had the best life anyone could imagine. With Pharaoh’s blessing, Joseph was the de facto ruler of Egypt. “You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage,” Pharaoh said to Joseph. “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt. …I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41:40-44).

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Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt not only became a superpower, but also made its neighboring nations slaves to Pharaoh, taking their money, land, and flocks (Gen 47:14-19). Yet, the prime beneficiaries from Egypt’s success were the Hebrews. Knowing to whom he owed his wealth and might, Pharaoh said to Joseph: “The land of Egypt is at your disposal; settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land, let them live in the land of Goshen [the richest, most lush part of Egypt], and if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock” (Gen 47:6).

The secret to Joseph’s success was his lineage. Three generations earlier, his great-grandfather, Abraham, saw his townspeople of Ur of the Chaldeans losing their social stability due to growing hatred among its people. All over ancient Babylon, people were becoming increasingly self-centered and alienated from each other. This manifested most evidently in the efforts to build the ambitious Tower of Babylon. The book Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer describes how the builders of the Tower of Babylon would “push up the bricks [to build the tower] from the east, then descend from the west. If a man fell and died, they would not pay him any mind. But if a brick fell they would sit and wail, ‘Woe unto us; when will another come in its place?’” Finally, the book continues, the Babylonians “wanted to speak to one another but did not know each other's language. What did they do? Each took his sword and they fought each other to the death. Indeed, half the world was slaughtered there, and from there they scattered all over the world.”

Distraught, Abraham reflected on the plight of his townspeople and realized that the intensification of egoism could not be stopped. To overcome it, he suggested to his townsfolk to increase the cohesion of his society in synchrony with the growth of the ego. In Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1), Maimonides describes this as Abraham beginning “to provide answers to the people of Ur of the Chaldeans.”

Abraham’s success drew the attention of the Babylonian king, Nimrod, who, according to the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 38:13), confronted Abraham and tried to prove him wrong. When King Nimrod failed, he expelled Abraham from Babylon. As the expat wandered toward the future Land of Israel, he continued to tell people about his discovery and garner followers and disciples. According to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (“Idolatry Rules,” Chapter 1:3), “Thousands and tens of thousands assembled around Abraham. He planted this tenet [of unity as an antidote to egoism] in their hearts, composed books about it, and taught his son, Isaac. Isaac sat and taught and informed Jacob, and appointed him a teacher, to sit and teach... And Jacob our Father taught all his sons.” By the time Joseph arrived, he had a well-established method for achieving social stability and prosperity through unity in the face of growing egoism and alienation.

How the Tables Turned Against Us

As we saw above, Pharaoh supported the unity of the Hebrews. He gave the best land in Egypt exclusively to them and let them cultivate their unique way of life—continuously enhancing unity—not only uninterrupted, but with his full support. Eventually, that unique unity became the essence of Judaism. As the book Yaarot Devash (Part 2, Drush no. 2) tells us, the word Yehudi (Jew) comes from the word yihudi, meaning united.

The problems began when Joseph died. Pharaoh, says the book Noam Elimelech, “is called ‘the evil inclination.’” Pharaoh is not simply egoism; he is the epitome of it. He will be nice to you only as long as you serve him. When he told Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt,” he meant that Joseph would rule over Egypt because Pharaoh knows that unity pays off. Without unity, he would have no reason to give any special favor to Joseph’s kin.

Yet, after Joseph’s death, the Hebrews did not maintain their unity. They wanted to be like the Egyptians: egoists. But they were unaware that by doing so, they would lose their favor in Pharaoh’s eyes and become what Jews have always been: pariahs. Midrash Rabbah (Exodus, 1:8) writes, “When Joseph died they said, ‘Let us be as the Egyptians.’ Because they did so, the Creator turned the love that the Egyptians held for them into hatred, as it was said (Ps 105), ‘He turned their heart to hate His people, to abuse His servants.’”

The Book of Consciousness (Chapter 22) writes even more explicitly that had the Hebrews not abandoned their way of unity, they would not have suffered. After quoting the Midrash I just mentioned, the book adds, “Pharaoh looked at the children of Israel after Joseph and did not recognize Joseph in them,” namely the tendency to unite. And because “New faces were made, Pharaoh declared new decrees upon them. You see, my son,” the book concludes, “all the dangers and all the miracles and tragedies are all from you, because of you, and on account of you.”

In other words, Pharaoh turned against us because we had abandoned our way, the way of unity above hatred, and wanted to stop being Hebrews. Throughout our history, the worst tragedies befell us when we wanted to stop being Jews and abandon the way of unity. The Greeks conquered the land of Israel because we wanted to be like them and worship the ego. We even did the fighting for them as Hellenized Jews fought against the Maccabees. Less than two centuries later, the Temple was ruined because of our unfounded hatred for each other. We were deported and murdered in Spain when we wanted to be Spaniards and abandoned our unity, and we were exterminated in Europe by the country where Jews wanted to forget about our unity and assimilate. In 1929, Dr. Kurt Fleischer, leader of the Liberals in the Berlin Jewish Community Assembly, accurately expressed our centuries’ long problem: “Anti-Semitism is the scourge that God has sent us in order to lead us together and weld us together.” What a tragedy it is that the Jews back then did not unite despite Fleischer’s truthful observation.

Exodus

When Moses came along, he knew that the only way to save the Hebrews was to pull them out of Egypt, out of the egoism that was destroying their relations. The book Keli Yakar (Exodus 6:2) writes about Moses: “The spirit of the Lord spoke in Pharaoh’s daughter to call him Moshe (Moses) from the word moshech (pulling) because he is the one who pulls Israel from exile.” That is, like Joseph before him, Moses united the people around him and thereby delivered them from Egypt.

Yet, even after their exit, the Hebrews were in danger of falling back into egoism. They received their “signet” as a nation only when they reenacted Abraham’s method of uniting above hatred. Once they pledged to unite “as one man with one heart,” they were declared a “nation.” At the foot of Mt. Sinai, from the word sinaa (hatred), the Hebrews united and thereby covered their hatred with love.

By their unity, Moses reestablished the Hebrews’ commitment to unity as an antidote to egoism. This has been the essence of Judaism ever since, or as Old Hillel put it in the Talmud: “That which you hate, do not do unto your neighbor; this is the whole of the Torah” (Shabbat, 31a). By covering their egoism with love and unity, the Jews managed to overcome the countless trials and tribulations they endured since the Exodus and until the ruin of the Second Temple. King Solomon succinctly worded the principle of Judaism with a short verse in Proverbs (10:12): “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes.”

Pharaoh and Moses within Us

As we read the Haggadah, it is a good idea to keep in mind that Pharaoh, Joseph, Moses, and all the other characters are more than parts of our history. We are commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt every day because they are actually parts of us! We all have Pharaoh, the evil inclination, but we do not have within us enough Moses and Joseph, the forces of unity. We are arrogant, self-entitled, and egoistic to the point of narcissism. We have lost our Jewishness, our tendency to unite.

In consequence, just as the Egyptians turned against the Hebrews when they abandoned Joseph’s way, the world is turning against us today because of our disunity. We will not find solutions to anti-Semitism in suppressing anti-Semitic tirades. This will not uproot the hate. As The Book of Consciousness writes in the quote just mentioned, “You see, my son, all the dangers and all the miracles and tragedies are all from you, because of you, and on account of you.” Our disunity creates, feeds, and fans the flames of anti-Semitism.

When Abraham found his way to overcome egoism, he wanted to share it with everyone. Likewise, as soon as the Hebrews became a nation, they were tasked with being “a light unto nations.” Put differently, they were commanded to bring unity to the world and complete what Abraham had begun. But in order to accomplish this, we must first exit our internal Egypt—the rule of the Pharaoh within us—and choose the way of Joseph and Moses, the way of unity. Moses knew what Abraham had wanted to achieve and tried to do the same. Ramchal wrote in his commentary on the Torah that “Moses wished to complete the correction of the world at that time. However, he did not succeed because of the corruptions that occurred along the way.” So, at the end of the day, being Jewish means following the path of Abraham and Moses—the path of unity, mutual responsibility, and brotherhood. When we seek unity, we are Jews. When we seek other goals, we are not.

The Festival of Freedom

Passover is the festival of freedom. Yet, we cannot be free as long as we are slaves to our egos. Liberation from Pharaoh means freedom from the evil inclination: the desire to harm, patronize, and oppress others. We are far from it. As long as we remain this way, we must not expect anti-Semitism to subside. On the contrary, it will only grow because, as I said above, our egoism creates, feeds, and fans it.

If we want to celebrate a proper Seder, we must put our priorities in the right order: our unity comes first, and everything else follows. We may disagree on politics, LGBT issues, Israel, or family matters. But if we do not unite above all our disagreements then we are wrong regardless of our position. Just as a mother loves her children regardless of their traits, beliefs, and actions, we must find a way to at least begin to march toward each other. This will be the beginning of our liberation from the inner Pharaoh.

This year, as we discuss the story of our ancestors, let’s also think about the ancestors within us, the forces of egoism or connection and brotherhood—to which of them we are catering, and to which of them we should be catering.

I wish us all a happy and kosher (hatred free) Passover.

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