Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”
Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Vaera 5771: That’s Gratitude For Ya
Pharaoh may have been evil, but nowhere in Jewish tradition is he described as foolish, naive or stupid.
Are we really to believe that Moses, surreptitiously arriving in the Egyptian palace as an infant cared for by the Pharaoh’s daughter, raised as her son (and as Steven Spielberg would later put it, Prince of Egypt) attracted no royal notice? That Batya’s hiring of a Jewish wet nurse was immaterial to the king’s spies? That the timing of the baby’s appearance – at the height of a royal decree of infanticide – was brushed aside as coincidence?
So the king allows Moses to grow up in his home, feeding him, clothing him, and presumably educating him. He attends royal family gatherings with his adopted mother, benefits from the protection of the palace guard, and has the king’s courtiers serve him. When Moses kills an Egyptian – a government employee no less – and escapes to Midian, Pharaoh allows bygones to be bygones. There is no extradition request made and no squad of Egyptian Marshals are sent to bring the fugitive to justice.
Imagine then the Pharaoh’s utter embarrassment when the rebel leader arrives for the requested parley and in walks the man he raised as his own grandson.
How is that for gratitude? What lesson does Jewish tradition hope this teaches us? Because, Jewish tradition makes much of the fact that the Lord instructs Moses to instruct Aaron to perform the first plagues – turning the Nile to blood, bringing forth the frogs and transforming sand to lice. G-d was teaching and Moses was modeling the Jewish value of gratitude, hakarat hatov. Left in a rickety basket on the river until found, the Nile played a role in Moses’ rescue. The sand too, with which Moses covered the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he had slain, had done Moses a service. It would have been ungrateful to then turn and use them as the basis for plagues.
But the entire lesson collapses of its own weight. The Nile and the sand aided Moses. Therefore, he must show them gratitude and not punish them, misuse them or mistreat them, even if the plagues were G-d’s will, and one would think, Moses would be doing the Nile and the desert a good turn by bringing them in on it. If so, Moses’ mere presence before Pharaoh is an affront to basic gratitude.
Mark Twain said that “The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are right,” but perhaps that isn’t the Torah’s view on things. Perhaps the greatest gratitude one can have for someone they care for or respect is to tell them they are in error. Moses knew the only way Pharaoh would save his kingdom, his country, his throne, is to free the Jewish people. Moses was giving Pharaoh the advice – and the chance – he needed.
Sometimes elected officials, dictators or other leaders surround themselves with “yes men.” People who either tell them what they want to hear or refuse to challenge their leadership, publicly or privately, with a different view, the potentially unnoticed consequences to action or inaction. But true friends and employees, volunteers and servants who truly care are those who will tell you there’s a better way or there’s something you’re not considering. If they are particularly close – or particularly loyal – they will zero in on why you are making the error, and point out a deep seated personal flaw that’s made a blind spot for you.
Everyone needs those friends. Friends to tell leaders when it’s time to move on, or step down, to tell parents when to let go, and children when to grow up. And everyone needs to be those friends, risking friendship for it, and if you are Thomas Becket, for example, giving your life for it. We need them – and need to be them – at work, at play, at home and in our community institutions.
And while being that “ingrate” requires courage – especially when the object of our advice can fire us, imprison us, or worse, sometimes the greater courage comes from hearing such no holds barred words and taking them to heart.
At least one strain in the Jewish tradition thinks Pharaoh, somewhat late, may have learned his – and this – lesson. After the defeat at the Sea of Reeds, Pharaoh eventually becomes king of the City-State of Nineveh, the people to whom Jonah initially refused to offer total truth. But when Jonah finally lives up to his need to tell them the truth, it is the King of Nineveh who descends from his throne, dons sackloth and orders every man and beast in the city to fast and avert tragedy.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.