Stubbornness can be a virtue or a terrible character defect. When it is a virtue we call it tenacity. When it is a defect it is just plain foolish and counter productive. Pharaoh’s stubbornness, as exhibited in this week’s parsha, is an example. His advisers inform him that Egypt is headed for disaster because of his stubbornness but he refuses to give in to the reality of the series of plagues that threaten to decimate Egyptian society.
Of course the Torah tells us that his tenacity was reinforced by the fact that God hardened his heart. The commentators, especially Maimonides, judge that to mean that the Lord gave him the courage of his convictions not to be influenced by the events transpiring in his country but to continue on his evil path to enslave the Jewish people.
Hardening his heart did not influence Pharaoh’s choices in the matter. It merely allowed him to transform what previously appeared to be tenacity into ultimate foolishness and disaster. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other such leaders displayed this same reckless stubbornness over the past century, resulting in the destruction of societies and the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Because of his behavior, Pharaoh becomes the paradigm for the self- destructive trait of foolish stubbornness. The Jewish people are also characterized as being a stubborn people. This trait has served us as well when we were and are tenacious in preserving our values and traditions. It is a foolish trait when we continue the policies and misbegotten certainties that have always led to our tragedies and misfortunes.
Rashi and Midrash teach us the source of Pharaoh’s suicidal stubbornness. It lay in his belief in himself as a god – arrogant and convinced of his own infallibility. People who are never wrong never have to change their policies, beliefs or behavior.
I am reminded of a sign that I once saw on the desk of a prominent public figure that said: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up!” He was joking about it (I think) but that danger lurks in all of us. Once we are convinced of the absolute rectitude of our position, we not only are tenacious in maintaining it, we become downright blindly stubborn.
Moshe meets Pharaoh at the river’s edge where he went to perform his bodily functions. Pharaoh is exposed there – not as a god but only as a mortal man. Moshe means to teach Pharaoh that the justification for his stubbornness – his sham sense of infallibility – is itself false. A little humility on the part of Pharaoh would have saved himself and Egypt a great deal of grief. That is why the Torah stresses that the desired quality for true leadership is humility.
Moshe becomes the paradigm for humility just as Pharaoh – his arch- nemesis – is the paradigm for arrogant stubbornness. This lesson of wise tenacity versus foolish stubbornness exists in all areas of human life and society – family, community, national policy and personal development. May we be tenacious enough in life to avoid foolish moments of harmful stubbornness.
Rabbi Berel Wein Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com