parasha

When Power Meets Empathy

Parashat Va’era
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Jewish nation’s liberation from Egyptian enslavement.

 

This process took about a year during which G-d brought ten plagues down on Egypt: The Nile turned to blood, frogs flooded Egyptian homes, the Egyptians itched from lice, wild animals appeared in Egypt sowing fear, animals died in a plague, the Egyptians suffered from serious boils, heavy hail fell from the sky accompanied by burning fires, locusts came and destroyed the harvests in the fields, a thick darkness fell on all of Egypt, and then the final plague came in which all the eldest-born in Egypt died.  After all this, the Egyptians set the Jewish nation free.

In some of the plagues, Pharaoh is described as fickle.  When the plague was at its peak, Pharaoh pleaded before Moses to stop it and he – Pharaoh – would immediately free the Jewish people.  But when the plague subsided, he would harden his heart again and refuse to liberate them.  As the plagues increased in intensity, Pharaoh persisted in his stubbornness and refuses to admit his mistake.  Even his servants’ pleas - "How long will this one be a stumbling block to us?... Don't you yet know that Egypt is lost?" (Exodus 10, 7) were futile.

Even when Pharaoh begs for the plague to stop and promises the yearned-for liberation, he does not express regret for the enslavement and hard labor that he forced upon the Israelites.  Pharaoh remains proud throughout all the plagues except one: the plague of hail.

In this plague, when Pharaoh begs for the hail destroying Egypt to stop, we read:

So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, "I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous One, and I and my people are the guilty ones.

(Exodus 9, 27)

Pharaoh expresses regret for his deeds only during this plague.  The sages of the midrash who noticed this searched in the scriptures for the reason.  How was this plague different from all the others? Here is what they answered:

Our sages have said: during all the plagues, Pharaoh never said: “The Lord is the righteous One,” except in the plague of the hail alone. Why? When someone wants to fight with his companion and overcome him, he comes upon him suddenly, kills him, and takes everything he has. But the Holy One said to Pharaoh: “Now send and bring under shelter your livestock”... at that time Pharaoh said: “The Lord is the righteous One”.

(Tanchuma Yashan, Vaera 20)

Before the plague of hail began, as with some of the other plagues, Moses was commanded to warn Pharaoh.  This time, the warning included advice for Pharaoh and the Egyptian nation to shelter their livestock so it wouldn’t be harmed by the heavy hail.

Pharaoh was prepared to battle G-d.  In his idolatrous perspective, he believed he could emerge from such a battle victorious.  That was the purpose of the plagues: to educate the Egyptian nation, and even more so – to educate the Jewish nation to believe in G-d’s abilities and His control over everything that happens in the world.  But the plagues were measured.  In the plague of hail, the Egyptians were given the opportunity to save their livestock by bringing it into their homes. So, although Pharaoh was prepared to battle G-d, he was not prepared to face a god that has compassion for his enemy’s property.  Pharaoh expected G-d to continue to exercise His power, pressure him, and beat him.  Pharaoh was emotionally prepared for such a situation.  But faced with G-d’s empathy and consideration, his resolve dissolved.

Sometimes we wonder: What can overcome power? People often use power, and when it is employed, it is not easy to overcome it.  The midrash teaches us that when power is met with empathy, consideration, and compassion – it collapses and retreats.  That is power’s weakness.

 

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