Parashat Vaera – January 13, 2018 – 26 Tevet 5778

As the plagues continued to hammer Egypt, Pharaoh’s inner circle of magicians/priests tried to counsel their stubborn leader that Moses was not performing mere tricks, but was manifesting the “finger of God.” (Exodus 8:15) Pharaoh ignored them and the situation worsened. Panicking, they pleaded with Pharaoh to compromise with Moses for “Egypt is lost.” (10:7) Nevertheless, no sooner had the Israelites escaped than Pharaoh’s counselors expressed dismay and Pharaoh impulsively led his loyalists in pursuit. (14:5-6) Pharaoh’s reckless behavior and flawed decision-making were placing his country in jeopardy and would lead to ruin. Members of his inner circle realized this. Why did they stick by him, even as it became increasingly clear that all this would end badly?

It is easy to understand why the Israelites and Moses had disdain for Pharaoh; he was their opponent, not their leader. But for the Egyptians, particularly Pharaoh’s inner circle, Pharaoh was their guy, the captain of their team. The Jews and the Egyptians were a case of “us vs them,” and a lack of partisan Egyptian support for Pharaoh would smack of a lack of patriotism. Pharaoh, in turn, devoted his attention to his base. The moment he senses them wavering, he galvanizes his troops and recklessly pursues the Israelites into the vortex of the Sea of Reeds.

The dynamic of authority can engender sycophancy. Perhaps this is why virtually every Biblical hero is depicted has having been flawed or blemished in some way. When heedless Israelite kings faced criticism, Biblical tradition sided with the critics, and the most vehement critics were rewarded by being called prophets. Fawning over leaders, even good ones, doesn’t sit well with Jewish culture. According to at least one opinion, having a defect is even a prerequisite for leadership: The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon b. Yehozadak said, “A leader should not be appointed to serve unless there is a sack of reptiles on his back (something reprehensible about him) so that, should he behave arrogantly, one may tell him, ‘Turn around!” Unfortunately for Egypt, no one was giving Pharaoh those directions.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine