The extended, tension filled, confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh forms the backdrop for the story of the plagues and the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. Pharaoh, from the outset, is unwilling to consider the request of Moshe to allow the Jewish people a three day furlough to worship God in the desert. The commentators to the Torah differ as to whether or not this was a sincere request by Moshe or simply a negotiating gambit to loosen the grip of Pharaoh on the Jewish slaves.
We do not find that God specifically endorsed or instructed Moshe to make such a proposal to Pharaoh. Nevertheless, all of these questions and difficulties are rendered moot by the fact that Pharaoh never for a moment really considered giving in to the demands of Moshe.
Even later, after coming under the pressure of the plagues and the wishes of his own advisors, and after agreeing to the three-day sojourn in the desert, Pharaoh refuses to allow the families of the slaves to accompany them, thus obviating his seeming concession to Moshe.
Pharaoh’s stubbornness, his intransigence in the face of the reality of the plagues is characteristic of people who view themselves as gods and superior beings. Pharaoh cannot afford any show of compromise or accommodation to the demands of Moshe. By so doing, he would admit to the fact that, in truth, he is not a god and thus his entire basis for rule over Egypt would be threatened.
Complete dominion over others that is based upon a colossal lie of superhuman status eventually is doomed to collapse. It may take centuries for this to occur but history has shown us that it always does occur. It is Pharaoh’s false claim to superhuman qualities that motivates his stubbornness and is what will doom him and Egypt to defeat and destruction.
Moshe, on the other hand, does possess superhuman qualities. But the one main quality that the Torah itself most emphasizes in its description of Moshe, over his decades of leadership, is a most human one – humility, modesty, and the realization of the difference between the created and the Creator. The opening verses of this week’s parsha teach us this lesson of humility.
The Jewish people and Moshe himself complained to God that somehow things were not going according to the plan that they envisioned. God’s response is that one of the limitations of humans is that they can never truly fathom God’s will and His direction of human affairs. This is an important lesson that Moshe must learn and assimilate into his personality. As he journeys through life, it is this quality that will eventually make him “the most humble of all human beings.”
Someone who is able to communicate with Heaven freely, almost at will, and who can perform miracles and bring plagues upon a mighty empire, can easily be seduced into believing in his own powers and abilities. Thus the opening sentences of this week’s Torah reading are vitally important for they are the key to the humility of Moshe and thus to the salvation of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage.
We must always be wary of the great human being who slips into the belief that he is somehow superhuman. It is this issue that highlights and contrasts the two antagonists – Pharaoh and Moshe – in the drama of the Jewish redemption from Egypt.
Shabbat shalom 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