This Week in Torah
Shabbat Bo 5774: Exodus 10:1-13:16 & Jeremiah 46:13-28
How to Handle a Pharaoh
In The March of Folly, the late Barbara Tuchman, refers to this week’s Torah portion as a political story whose consequences were known to the participants but ignored, long before the scenario was played out ‘on the ground.’ She points to Exodus 10:7 where Pharaoh’s trusted advisors, who in the midst of the yet incomplete but now predictable series of plagues, urge their boss to “Let the men go…” asking him “Do you not know that Egypt is already destroyed?”
Every type of child knows the story ends four ways, in the: suffering of all Egypt through the death of their first born, destruction of Pharaoh’s army, humiliation of Egypt’s gods and freedom for the Hebrews. Good news for us. Bad news for every Egyptian family, each of whom suffered economic and personal loss thanks to their king’s stubborn and counter-productive policies.
Recognizing that in the triumph, of even a totally just cause, there is always some inherent and unavoidable tragedy, our tradition forbids rejoicing over the destruction of our enemies. Removing some wine from our cups during the recitation of the plagues on Passover teaches that we may celebrate our own deliverance but not the defeat, no matter how necessary, of others.
In Egypt, God and the politically astute, all knew where things were headed. Although, according to Rabbi Eliezer (Exodus Rabbah XXI:8), God had to tell Moses to move the Hebrews forward because even Moses may not have been clear as to whether there was still time for prayer and hopefulness or if worldly measures were now required.
Modern geo-politics frequently presents the same difficult choice. A former New York City Police Commissioner summed up the need to maintain hope that the enemy would see reason while being ready to act when he said, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”
This wise dual approach is the point of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. As in our parashah, the “Pharaohs” of Iran are, even at this late hour, given an opportunity to turn aside from their bellicose, world threating nuclear ambitions. The bill gives time for diplomacy and leaves the field opened for the executive branch to do its best. But, should those efforts fail, it would strengthen the ‘stick’ of economic sanctions, which may need to be renewed to bring so many people to freedom from a nuclear threat.
Rabbi Steve Denker
This week Rabbi Denker’s message was also printed in the Cleveland Jewish News.