Had Pharaoh been a cartoon character, I might have pegged him as the Wile E. Coyote of his day. That Looney Tunes character, in his obsessive pursuit of the Roadrunner, would build elaborate contraptions and traps, only to have them backfire and blow up on him, often leaving him flattened and completely “shmushed.” But then he would reinflate, and start the chase all over again. Albert Einstein surely didn’t watch cartoons, but he did offer an apt definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
After all the plagues, all the destruction wrought upon Egypt for refusing to free the Jewish slaves, Pharaoh finally relented and sent the children of Israel away. But why did he then turn around and chase us to bring us back? Was he insane? Shouldn’t he have given up already?
One way to approach the issue would be to begin with an analysis of the initial motivation for enslaving the Jewish people. Was it simply for slave labor? That wouldn’t make sense, because they wouldn’t want to kill the baby boys who would grow into strong laborers. Was it simply an anti-Semitic urge to wipe us from the face of the Earth? That doesn’t make sense either, because then they would have killed the little girls as well. So what did they have in mind?
The Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews is described as a new king “who did not know of Joseph” (1:8). Wait a second, here. How is it possible that a new king could possibly take the throne who did not know of the man who had saved the entire country? He was a national hero! The Talmud (Sotah 11A) wrestles with this wording, and one opinion in that text suggests that this Pharaoh of course knew who Joseph was, but deliberately turned a blind eye and pretended he did not.
Why would he ignore Joseph’s accomplishments? Because their legacy was complex. A careful reading of an often overlooked section, Bereshit 47:13–27, is in order. It reveals that Joseph’s administration stripped the Egyptian people of all of their wealth, property, land and even their personal freedom, and gave it to Pharaoh. For the Egyptian people, this was a massive loss, and it likely made Joseph’s family far less welcome.
For Pharaoh however, this was great. And perhaps that was exactly the problem. He knew that Egypt, and especially he himself as monarch, owed Joseph and the Jews a deep debt of gratitude. And that was difficult, because it is highly uncomfortable to feel indebted to others. He was desperate to bury the presence of Joseph, the evidence that Egyptian success was based on a Jewish contribution.
So what did Pharaoh do? He tried to eliminate the problem. His first approach was to try and co-opt them: Absorb and become the Jewish people by killing the men and marrying the women. But this failed because the Jewish midwives refuse to comply.
His next approach was to make us subhuman and unworthy of gratitude by enslaving us. But this, too, failed when the Ten Plagues struck Egypt. And then came the slaying of the first-born, with its message that every family, including that of the king, was vulnerable.
So his final approach was to attempt to destroy us, to chase us into the sea, because the notion of having a people out there who “made Egypt great” was completely untenable.
Pharaoh was uncomfortable with having people do great kindnesses for him, kindnesses that he could not properly repay. He was not alone in is discomfort, but there was an alternative to his approach: being gracious.
It pays to remember that the people who do for us actually love us, and it is we who are the ones feeling the discomfort. Secondly, one can “pay it forward”; if the other person doesn’t need you, then do something because of them for someone else who does. And finally, admit that it is OK to have needs. Do we really think we are perfect and completely self-sufficient?
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.