]“The whip for a horse, the bridle for a donkey, and the rod for the back of fools.” A midrash sees this as commentary about three historical figures, rather than farm animals. It links the horse to the Paroh of Bereishis, the donkey to his colleague Avimelech, and sees Moshe’s Paroh as the fool who needed the rod. We will unpack Chazal’s deep intent in doing this.
Hashem reserves a special hatred for the one who employs speech as his weapon of choice to strike at his fellow. The Torah includes him on its short list of people who are cursed; Chazal include him among the four groups who are not allowed to receive the Divine Presence. (It is a tragic but all-too-common error that speech does not rise to the bar of action, and that the Torah concerns itself with prohibited actions alone. This is patently untrue.)
Battery-through-speech comes in two varieties, depending on whether the underlying hatred of a person for his fellow (which undoubtedly underlies the attack) is overt or covert. Each has a relative advantage and disadvantage for the victim. When the hatred is open and manifest, the victim knows what to expect. He can often protect himself from its effects. On the other hand, it is a constant cause of aggravation and worry. When hatred is hidden, the victim cannot agonize about what he does not know. He also, however, has no way of warding off its ill effects.
How does the evildoer decide which kind of hatred to deploy? For the most part, when he is motivated by some raw, primal hatred, he cannot keep it hidden. He is interested in hurting the other, and the hurt is maximized when it is out in the open. When, however, his hatred of the other grows out of self-love, i.e. he wants to destroy and displace the other so that he can move into his position, he will conceal his hatred.
“For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful have opened against me. They have spoken to me the language (tongue) of falsehood.” The pasuk initially deals with the “mouth,” and then switches to “tongue.” Other pesukim do the same, or similar. It seems to me that the nuance that the two terms refer to the different forms of evil speech we have considered. Chazal observe that the tongue is kept in check by two barriers that can block it from being weaponized – the mouth, and the teeth. Thus, references to an evil mouth refer to speech that is openly and manifestly hateful, just as the mouth (or lips) are revealed and obvious to all. When a pasuk speaks of the more hidden and devious kind of evil speech, it employs the term “evil tongue” – just as the tongue ordinarily remains hidden behind its natural barriers.
Avraham and Soro experienced similar ordeals in Gerar and in Egypt. Yet the rulers of these two places reacted very differently when they learned that Soro was not Avrohom’s sister, but his wife. Avimelech in Gerar protested, affirming the innocence of himself and the probity of his countrymen. He acts genuinely hurt at the suggestion that law-abiding citizens in a law-abiding country would be complicit in stealing a man’s wife from him. Paroh made no such declaration. He simply chides Avrohom for not revealing that Soro was married, implying that had he and his people known that, no one would have compromised her purity.
They were both wrong, of course. Many people in Gerar were prepared to ignore any and all statutes, and deliver Soro for the enjoyment of their leader. Avimelech hid behind a veneer of civility, insulating himself against the criticism of others, and his own conscience, convinced that he and his people were a cut above the rest. Egypt lacked the veneer; Paroh recognized that the laws of his realm were themselves flawed and unjust. They offered no protection to the stranger, even if they would have been heeded. And they weren’t!
Paroh, according to the passage with which we opened our discussion, is likened to the horse responding to the whip. A horse comprehends somewhat. When the aroma of independence becomes too powerful for it to exist, the snap of the whip reminds it of its place. It returns to its place in the order of things, properly chastened.
Avimelech is the donkey restrained by the bridle. The whip won’t do. Avimelech, convinced of his advanced morality, will not respond to a reminder. He requires something stronger. He is the uncomprehending donkey. The bridle doesn’t remind – it forces the animal to go precisely where its master wants it to. It closes off options. Paroh was discomfited by a plague; Avimelech was restrained and prevented from mischief by stopping up all his orifices.
Where does the Paroh of Shemos fit in? For much of the story, he resembled his predecessor. He would have responded to the whip – to a reminder by Hashem of Who was in charge, once he had made that determination. He didn’t, only because Hashem artificially hardened his heart.
This changed after the Bnei Yisrael left Egypt, and apparently found themselves with their backs to the sea, encamped before the shrine of Ba’al Tzefon. Paroh saw opportunity he never had before. This Jewish G-d must have run out of strength, relative to the Egyptian god. He thought he could deal them a mighty blow. He became the uncomprehending donkey, which needed something more than the whip. Paroh soon found himself paralyzed into inaction, staring at walls of water that threatened on all sides. He was boxed in. All options had been closed off.
In other words, Moshe’s Paroh was treated to both the whip and the bridle. Together, they are called the rod that is required for fools.
Hashem’s treatment of all sinners follows this pattern. Eventually, sins exact their price. Some sinners are nudged back to proper living by a reminder from His whip. Others require more direct intervention that removes their ability to commit further sins. Still others are the fools who must be beaten again and again.