The Psychology of Pharaohs –- and of Resisters

Just as Jews are reading the Torah story of the ancient stubborn, arrogant, cruel and violent Pharaoh,  we are living through constantly more extreme versions of the present US Government as the Pharaoh of our day. 

And we are also living through our memories of the Resister who is most honored in this generation of Americans: Martin Luther King.

The Torah stories of Pharaoh and Exodus are a brilliant unfolding of the psychology of the Powerful and the psychology of the Disempowered who are hurled into resistance.

What can we learn from these stories for our liberation struggle today?   There are five  elements of subjugation and resistance that peer through the Torah stories. Three of them are explored in today’s Shalom Report; the others in a day or two.

1. The ancient Pharaoh whipped up the contempt and hatred of Egyptians against foreigners he called “Ivrim”  -- meaning the “cross-over” people, wanderers with no roots in Egypt’s blood and soil; “wetbacks.”   "Rootless cosmopolites,” as Stalin called the Jews. Who were these people? “Ivrim” is now translated “Hebrews.”

And today? Do I even need to recite the words and acts and policies of contempt for Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Salvadorans, refugees, women, the poor?

Why this pattern?

A person who is convinced he is a god (Pharaoh) or invincibly a “stable genius” needs to justify his megalomania by pouring contempt on lesser beings. And trampling on some of these “lesser” beings becomes a political act as well, giving some subjugated group (Egyptians who have become serfs to Pharaoh) someone even lower down to fear and hate.  That takes the heat off Pharaoh.

2.  The god Pharaoh thinks that for him and his kingship, there are no consequences if he acts badly. His power insulates him from consequences. Each of the Plagues frightens him, but as soon as it ends he is relieved: “Stuff happens,” he says. “It was an accident.”

He denies the interwoven Whole, the One,  the Echad.  He rejects the possibility that his own actions have consequences  (the Plagues) that are self-destructive.

But Moses, Aaron, & Miriam understand that YHWH is a  unity. The Interbreathing Spirit connects all life and all actions, and so every act has consequences.   There is no angry punishing Super-Pharaoh in the sky; there are only, and always, consequences. Cruelty to human beings rebounds and boomerangs onto the oppressor. Ill used, the oppressor’s power brings plagues upon the Earth: undrinkable water, swarms of locusts, unprecedented hailstorms. All eco-disasters. These consequences fall upon the oppressor, after all. 

This need and this ability to understand the interwovenness of all Being --  YHWH Echad! – is the most important element in the psychology of the disempowered, the oppressed.

It is what the Resistance must firmly affirm today. It is the Truth that the oppressive Power cannot afford to admit, because to admit it means to know that oppressive acts have destructive consequences for the oppressor.

3. The Torah says that Pharaoh begins by hardening his own heart against the Israelites’ desire for  freedom, and after several experiences of several “plagues,”  God begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart.

 “What happened to free will?” we ask with indignation.

This is about addiction: The addict begins with a free choice of meth, or heroin, or fentanyl.  After five doses, or fifteen, or with luck even twenty, there’s no free will left. “God”  -- that is, Reality --  takes over.

Pharaoh addicts himself to his own unchecked, unaccountable Power. Even when his closest advisers warn him he is ruining his own country, he can’t stop. 

When he hits rock bottom –- his own first-born son and all the first-borns in the kingdom die –-he tells Moses and the Godwrestling folk of Yisrael to leave.

But even then, he wakes up the next morning and cannot stand their freedom. He mobilizes his Chariot Army (the nuclear-armed jet bombers of his day) to recapture the runaway slaves. Finally, his addiction to his own power brings his power down: He and his army dissolve into the Sea.

4. When God sends Moses to face the Pharaoh (Exod 10: 1), the Torah text says, "Bo el Pharaoh." Most English translations say, "Go to Pharaoh." But "Bo" means "come," not "go."

"Come to Pharaoh!"

How can God be saying "Come!" unless God is already there? -- already within Pharaoh!

"Come toward Me."

And God's call to Moshe continues: "Hikhbad'ti libo." That is usually translated, "I have made his [Pharaoh's] heart heavy, hard.")

But the Hebrew root KVD can mean heavy, or glorious, or honorable, or radiant. Perhaps the English sense of "gravity" -- a force that reaches far beyond its source, radiating through the world -- catches some elements of "KVD." When a leader is said to possess "gravitas," it means he is a "heavy dude," worthy of honor, radiating forth his own glory to faraway places.

So the phrase can be read as: "I, God, have put My radiance in his, Pharaoh's, heart."

In other words: "Come to Me -- the Me who lives hidden inside Pharaoh. Don't be afraid of Pharaoh: what looks like HIS radiance, HIS glory, is really MY radiance, MY glory."

From seeing God hidden within Pharaoh, I can learn both courage and self-control.

Courage as I realize that Pharaoh's seeming power is not his, but just a part of the enormous power of the flow of life, the Unity of universe. If Pharaoh tries to grasp that power as his own, the river and the locusts, the frogs and the first-borns, will overflow his rigid boundaries and sweep away his power. I do not need to fear it.

Self-control as I recall that even within Pharaoh is the Tzelem Elohim, the spark of God, and I can resist the Pharaoh's tyranny while yet remembering the KaVoD -- honor -- due his spark of divinity.

I do not need to, and do not want to, destroy him. I can, and I must, limit my own resistance to what will give him space to change. He may or may not use the space, but my own action becomes victorious by welcoming the smothered God Who is already there.

Multiply courage by self-control, and what emerges is nonviolent resistance. I will not obey my enemy, and I will not kill him either. I will persevere on my own life-journey into truth --- what Gandhi called satyagraha, "the force of truth."

5. Twice, Moses and Aaron face Pharaoh saying, "Thus says YHWH. . . " (Exod 10: 3 and 5: 1). In their first encounter, Pharaoh answers, "Who is YHWH?"

Who indeed?

This is the God Who spoke that Name to Moses at the Burning Bush. The Unpronounceable Name -- unpronounceable not because we are forbidden to pronounce it, but because there is no way to "pronounce" it but by simply breathing, "Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh."

It is the Name that reaches across all barriers of language: not Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Sumerian, or Latin, or Greek, or Sanskrit, or Swahili, or Navajo, or Arabic, or English -- but present beneath all of them. And present also in the bleating of sheep, the gurgle of fish, the rustle of trees. The most universal of Names. The Breath of Life, Nishmat Kol Chai, Ruach Ha’Olam.

Moses and Aaron might have simply stayed focused on that universal Name. But they added an explanation -- "YHWH, the God of the Ivrim, the Hebrews."

Why -- when they were trying to get an Egyptian king to listen -- entangle an ethnic claim with a universalist assertion?

Perhaps they were entering a word-play with Pharaoh. Perhaps "God of the Ivrim, the Hebrews," meant more than an ethnocentric boast. For as we have already noticed, Ivrim means literally "those who cross over," nomads, wanderers, what Stalin called "rootless cosmopolites" when he was attacking Jews. It seems to have been used by the settled, responsible peoples of the Middle East as a contemptuous label for people who wouldn't stay put where they belonged. "Wetbacks."

Perhaps Moses and Aaron were warning Pharaoh that the Breath of Life -- which blows where it wishes, cannot be captured and pinned down -- is the God of those who cannot be pinned down to one place, one life-path, one Narrow Space.

Moses insists that the Boundary-crossers must leave in order to celebrate a festival for the Breath of Life.

Often this is read today as an attempt to mislead Pharaoh. But suppose we imagine Moses groping his way toward a broader, stronger form of resistance. Honoring the nonviolent resistance iof the midwives Shifra and Puah, but wanting to go another step.

Perhaps from that perspective, Moses' demand for a three-day festival in the wilderness was an experiment. If they had been allowed to go and then returned, having had time for rest and reflection and celebration instead of being condemned to endless toil, would that "reform" have shaken pyramidal Egypt to its foundations? Did Pharaoh refuse precisely because he knew that introducing the notion of sacred restfulness and holy renewal would shatter his power over Egypt’s top-down social system?

And if we ask ourselves what it would mean today for Jews -- for anyone!!! - Americans, Palestinians, West Virginians condemned to see their lovely, sacred mountains smashed to burn the coal that scorches the earth and poisons the air -- to take on the task of nonviolent resistance against our generation's Pharaohs, perhaps the festivals can embody that resistance.

When Soviet Jews began dancing for Simchat Torah in the public streets of Moscow, facing what seemed to be a totalitarian regime, that was utterly different from dancing with the Torah in the hidden streets of the ghetto. Their dances began to crack the rigidity of Pharaoh. They became Ivrim -- boundary-crossers. And they called forth allies.

When American Jews celebrated Freedom Seders that honored both the ancient Israelite and the modern Black struggles for freedom and demanded an end to the Vietnam war, and when they celebrated feminist Seders that affirmed new freedom for women within and beyond the boundaries of Jewish life, they cracked ancient rigidities that required both Jews and women to stay "in their place." Blacks, Jews, a veritable "international feminist conspiracy" of women of many cultural origins all crossed their own boundaries to stand together. They all became Ivrim -- boundary-crossers.

And today? Climate scientists and restaurant workers; Californians whose houses have burned and Puerto Ricans whose electrical system has been blown away; young Black men and  young trans whites harassed or killed by the police; Muslims and Mormons; women poked, pawled, raped and small-town busonessmen ruined by a rapacious bank  --  all these and many others must cross the boundaries, tear down the barricades between them. Become ivrim. Feared and despised by the modern Pharaohs, courageous in community with each other.




Jewish and Interfaith Topics: