Pharaoh’s character

The narrative of the first third of the book of Exodus (through Parshat Beshalach) features a protracted confrontation between G‑d and Pharaoh. In this respect, it can be said that the central character of these parshot is not Moses but Pharaoh. Moses fulfills his role as G‑d’s emissary, conducting himself in a clear and consistent fashion. By contrast, Pharaoh’s character is more complex, engaging our interest and raising various questions.

One of the basic questions about Pharaoh’s character is why, after suffering blow after blow, does he not respond? Granted, the Torah states that “G‑d hardened Pharaoh’s heart;”1 still, this raises the question of what underlies this whole situation.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to say that he respects Pharaoh. Here was a man who was struck by the plagues of Egypt and nevertheless stubbornly upheld his principles. This characterization not only explains the question of Pharaoh’s surprising behavior, but sheds light generally on many of the other antagonists in the Torah as well.

In the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, certainly we would like to feel that we are on the side of Moses, but the truth is that most people would probably relate more to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron are lofty characters who are in direct contact with G‑d, whereas Pharaoh, in terms of his personality, is more or less an ordinary human being. To be sure, not everyone is capable of decreeing, as he did, “Every boy who is born you shall throw into the Nile,”2 or of opposing G‑d so stubbornly. Nevertheless, in terms of a person’s basic inner tendencies, Pharaoh’s decisions seem eminently understandable.

In this respect, the wicked characters in the Torah are no less – and perhaps even more – fascinating than the righteous ones. When we study the wicked characters, we can understand them much more fully than we can understand the tzadikim. It may be that some who study the Bible feel as if they can relate to the prophets, but there is a big difference between feeling this way and fully comprehending what prophecy entails. In the case of the wicked, it is undoubtedly easier for us to understand the entirety of what motivates such a personality. Hence, Pharaoh’s character and essential nature are much more significant for us, and it is important to try to understand his mode of conduct and his responses.

Pharaoh’s remorse

After the first plagues, Pharaoh already appears to be shaken, and he humbles himself when facing Moses, but the alarm that seizes him after the plague of hail is much more significant: “Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them: I have sinned this time; G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.”3

Pharaoh’s alarm is understandable, considering that he lives in a land such as Egypt, where hail is a rare occurrence. When the hail falls, it is likely the first time in his life that he has seen such a thing, and it surely makes a great impression on him, all the more so when it is a heavy hail accompanied by thunder and lightning.

Nevertheless, his response on this occasion is essentially different from his previous responses. What does he mean when he says, “I have sinned this time; G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked”? What is he talking about?

When we follow the confrontation between Pharaoh and G‑d, we see that, at least on the surface, it is conducted like a negotiation. At the start, Pharaoh receives a proposal to let the People of Israel have a three-day vacation in order to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh, of course, is not thrilled by the idea, and he flatly rejects the proposal. Clearly, this refusal creates a confrontation, but it is still limited, an obstacle the likes of which are found in every negotiation.

It is clear that part of the significance of the leave that Moses demands of Pharaoh is symbolic. Just as nowadays certain countries prohibit the waving of certain flags, the demand to leave Egypt and celebrate G‑d’s festival in the wilderness is not merely a demand for three days of vacation; it is a fundamental demand for recognition that the People of Israel has a certain degree of independence. It is a symbolic demand: Who is the one in charge? These symbolic actions can lead to strikes, wars, and revolutions to this very day. Pharaoh realizes this and, in the interest of preserving his sovereignty over the People of Israel, considers Moses’ request a nonstarter.

Despite the fundamental significance of the proposal to go on leave, and although the confrontation is protracted, at this stage the confrontation clearly remains a normal feature of the negotiation process.

In any case, following this rejection, Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh, this time conveying G‑d’s demand to let the people go. When Pharaoh refuses, G‑d inflicts a plague on Egypt, until he finally relents. However, like anyone who has participated in a negotiation process knows, concessions are often followed by immediate regret. Indeed, Pharaoh reneges on his promise to free the People of Israel repeatedly, sometimes refusing outright and sometimes hedging his allowance with unreasonable conditions, but never agreeing completely to the terms he accepted earlier.

After the plague of hail, however, Pharaoh expresses remorse in a way that seems striking. What causes him to suddenly say, “G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked”? In a way, Pharaoh’s remorse evokes that of the wicked king Ahab, after Elijah rebukes him: “He rent his clothes and put sackcloth on his body. He fasted, lay in sackcloth, and walked about subdued.”4 However, when Ahab shows remorse, it is for very specific sins, and he truly has reason to be remorseful. Ahab’s admission of sin is truly justified, whereas here Moses says nothing to Pharaoh about the distress he has caused the People of Israel; all that he demands of Pharaoh is “Let my people go.” Why does Pharaoh say here, “I have sinned this time”? What is this sin that he is referring to?

Shattering the “I am always right” mentality

Pharaoh does not grow up as an ordinary person but as the king of Egypt. Consequently, he grows up under the simple assumption that he is no less than a G‑d. This assumption is not a matter of abstract theology; it is bound up with the fundamental premise of his life and with the basic way he views the world. When a person grows up under the impression that he is a G‑d, this also colors his understanding of the nature of justice. Whatever he wants is by definition the embodiment of justice, and if there is anyone or anything in the world that is just, it is certainly he.

In the course of the ten plagues, Pharaoh goes through a process of change in his fundamental conception of his own life, a process that reaches its climax in the plague of hail. His confrontation with Moses leads him to discover, for the first time in his life, that he is not infallible, that perhaps he is the one who is acting improperly. He is exposed to this idea for the first time, and for someone like him this comes as a great shock, shattering the foundations of his life. When Pharaoh reaches this conclusion, it is not merely theoretical knowledge; he is now forced to adopt a new attitude to his whole life. He must now re-examine and reassess all of his past actions.

Before Pharaoh’s epiphany, he was capable of saying, “Every boy who is born you shall throw into the Nile,”5 without suffering any pangs of conscience. As far as he was concerned, if he wanted them to drown, they drowned; if he wanted them to be killed, they were killed. Everything that he wanted was automatically defined as just and good, with no qualms whatsoever. Only when Pharaoh’s basic premise that “I am always right” is shattered does he gain the ability to evaluate and assess things as they are, and only then can his self-assessment change.

Because of this, Pharaoh’s remorse does not end with a simple, “I did not act properly in this case”; this is a remorse that shatters his whole value system. That is why he includes in his confession something that seems out of place. He says, “I have sinned this time,” and not only that but, “I and my people are wicked.” Why “I and my people”? Because now Pharaoh’s thoughts go back many years, and for the first time it occurs to him that perhaps his whole life has been a great lie. This remorse is not limited to what just transpired between him and Moses but, rather, returns to the root of the matter, hundreds of years back. It returns to the order to collect straw, to the order to drown the firstborn sons, and even to the very enslavement of Israel.

The basic feeling of “I am always right,” which kept Pharaoh from any kind of soul-searching, is not a phenomenon that was limited to him alone. In this regard, Pharaoh is merely an extreme example of an ordinary person. Granted, an ordinary person does not grow up under the same circumstances as Pharaoh, does not commit the same sins, and does not think the way Pharaoh thinks; but despite all these distinctions, Pharaoh is still fundamentally an ordinary person. The real obstacle to remorse and the possibility of repentance is always the same, both in its extreme expression in the case of Pharaoh and in its more banal expression in the case of an ordinary person.

Ezekiel cites in the name of Pharaoh – not the Pharaoh of Exodus but a different Pharaoh – the saying, “Mine is my Nile; I have made myself great,”6 which essentially means, “I am the world’s epitome of perfection.” This is how Pharaoh formulates the idea, but it exists – albeit in subtler form – in the mind of every person. Only when one frees himself from this way of thinking does the gateway to remorse open for him.

Thus, Pharaoh’s experience exists in other people’s experiences as well when, as a result of repenting for a certain act, they suddenly discover an entirely new way of thinking in which everything has a completely different significance. In such a case, the repentance is not limited to the matter that prompted it; rather, it broadens and has implications for the person’s whole life.

Complete remorse

Pharaoh’s remorse, both in its scope and in its attempt to get at the roots of the sin, should teach us a lesson. Remorse is never a simple matter; even when a person expresses regret and wants to repent, there are liable to be basic problems with the remorse and with the implementation of the desired repentance. In this respect, Pharaoh’s case is a good example of complete remorse.

One basic problem with remorse is the question of its sincerity. There is a well-known saying that “the wicked are full of regrets.”7 The simple meaning of this is that even a completely wicked person is not at peace with his sins, and he, too, has moments when he feels regret and wants to repent. Why, though, does this saying read, “full of regrets,” in the plural? One explanation is that the wicked are full of many “regrets” because no matter how many times they have regret, it is never true regret. There is a humorous quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: “To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” Similarly, the wicked are full of regrets. The wicked person has remorse, but he knows that he will revert to his evil ways, and that in another week or two he will again have remorse over the same matter, but even stronger. Thus it turns out that his life is full of regrets. Between each instance of remorse, he reverts to the very behavior that caused the remorse in the first place.

The Talmud states that “if a person commits a sin and repeats it, it becomes to him as though it were permissible.”8 Regarding repentance as well, there can be an equally dangerous predicament where someone is caught in a cycle of remorse and teshuva followed by a return to the sin, followed by remorse once again. When a person does teshuva the first time, it makes an impression. But when he does teshuva twice or five times for the same sin, teshuva becomes a meaning­less ­procedure, one that can be repeated over and over again, while nothing actually changes.

Another problem with remorse is that sometimes a person is truly penitent and does teshuva from the bottom of his heart, but the teshuva is misplaced – he focuses on the wrong part of the transgression.

There is a hasidic story about a woman who came to a Rebbe to seek repentance for eating on Asara BeTevet, forgetting that it is a fast day. After listening to her talk about her transgression, the Rebbe began to tell her the story of a Jew who took over for a Priest. A farmer came to confess before him and told him that he stole a piece of rope. The Jew asked him under what circumstances he stole the rope. The farmer answered that the rope was tied to a cow, and since he stole the cow, the rope was stolen together with it. When the Jew then asked him what else happened, the farmer continued, recounting that the owner of the cow noticed the theft and tried to resist. When the Jew then asked how the farmer responded, he answered, “I killed him.” When the Jew heard this, he could no longer contain himself and cried, “You killed him!?” The Rebbe, too, shouted at the woman, “You killed someone?!” and the woman fainted in shock. It turned out that she had given birth to a child outside of wedlock, strangled him, and covered up the incident. This woman came to the Rebbe to seek repentance for having mistakenly eaten on Asara BeTevet, and ended up revealing her guilt in a far more egregious matter.

Though this anecdote is an extreme example, this is a problem that many people encounter in their lives. A person can work toward self-improvement and atonement, but if he does not get to the heart of the problem, he will think that it is sufficient to rectify only a specific point, while the essential problem still exists. In such a case, the benefit of repentance would be merely temporary and local.

A similar problem exists among those who undergo cancer operations. It is often simple for a surgeon to remove the cancerous growth itself, but it is far more complicated to determine whether that particular growth is a metastasis of another growth that still remains in the person’s body. If any growths remain, the treatment will not succeed.

It can be a great accomplishment for a person to admit, “I have sinned this time.” But there is a higher level, where a person’s soul searching moves him to such a degree that he declares, “G‑d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.” His remorse reaches back three hundred years, because he understands that his sin does not begin from the present moment, from the present phenomenon – he had to return to the root of the matter.

Penetrating to the roots

The thoroughness of Pharaoh’s remorse can be found also in the Torah’s description of the process of confession and atonement in Leviticus. One of the central verses reads, “They will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers.”9 At first glance, it is difficult to understand why “the sins of their fathers” are relevant. Clearly, the sinner must confess his own sins, but why should he confess those of his fathers? This point is so essential to confession that it is even included in the confession formula of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva (Days of Awe) – “But we and our fathers have sinned.” Here, too, the same question arises: What do we want from “our fathers”? Why drag our fathers into a confession of our own sins?

The point is that when remorse is sincere, it penetrates to the roots of things, reaching one’s whole value system, in its full scope. When a person looks at himself, it is easy for him to reach the conclusion that on the whole, he is not a bad person, an outlook that eliminates the possibility of comprehensive remorse. Sometimes a person looks not at himself but at his father, rationalizing that since there are areas in which he is better than his father, it must be that he himself is sufficiently virtuous. The formula, “we and our fathers have sinned,” expresses the idea that sometimes a person must confess not only his own sins but also those of his father, and sometimes even those of his ancestors before that. When a person engages in comprehensive soul-searching, he should consider the possibility that his whole life has been full of bad decisions. He must not only evaluate his actions within the framework of his value system, but also evaluate that value system itself. When a person goes back to the very roots, he sees a completely different picture, in which the whole system can take on a different character. This is what Pharaoh understands when he says, “I and my people are wicked.”

It often does not occur to us to question the broader scheme of things. Sometimes a person feels something nagging at him, a sense that something is wrong in his life. But he cannot pinpoint what this trouble is, because he cannot look beyond what he sees in front of him. He does not even raise the question of whether the entire framework of his life might need to be overhauled.

Where does such an attitude spring from? When the big picture of a person’s life, with its problems and deficiencies, is acceptable to him, true remorse is impossible. If a person presupposes that his current way of life is how things should be, then he can no longer have full remorse for anything, except for superficial, local problems.

This is not to say that it is unimportant to perfect even the minor details in one’s life; indeed, there is a great deal of value in this. But if someone asks whether the point of the letter yud in his tefillin is perfectly precise when the text of the parchment itself has been erased, it is a sign that he does not see things in proper perspective.

In the story of the ten plagues, Pharaoh goes through a life-changing ordeal. He suddenly experiences thunder and lightning, the likes of which he has never experienced in his life. Strange things are falling from the heavens, and he is seized with terror. He begins to think, for the first time in his life, that perhaps he is not a G‑d. At that moment, an abyss opens wide before him, and he asks himself: What have I done with my whole life?

Only when basic conceptions like these are shattered, and everything suddenly seems different, does it becomes possible to start again from the beginning.