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Yul Brynner in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956)Photo: YouTube
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In Syria and Elsewhere, Let’s Do Like the Pharaoh

There’s another reading of the Exodus story, and it has much to teach us about might and right

Liel Leibovitz
April 14, 2017
Photo: YouTube
Yul Brynner in 'The Ten Commandments' (1956)Photo: YouTube

For most of us huddled around the Seder table this week, the Pharaoh is evil embodied. We enlightened moderns understand the Passover story as a tale of liberation, in which the oppressed minority rebels and resists the oppressive might of a wicked regime. It’s a reading that jells nicely with our liberal imaginations—replace Moses with Martin Luther King Jr. and you hardly miss a beat. But what if there’s another way to understand the story?

In the spirit of empathizing with the Other, try to see things from the Pharaoh’s point of view. “Behold,” the new king warns his advisers in the very first chapter of Exodus, “the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.”

This is not, naturally, a point of view that appeals to us today. The goal of all acts of state, most of us believe, is to bring about peace on earth and goodwill to all. But from the point of view of a tyrant presiding over a vibrant empire circa 1200 BCE, it’s a valid calculus. Cool and cunning, the Pharaoh proceeds cautiously, afflicting the Israelites first with nothing more punishing than hard labor. When that proves to be bad policy—“the more they afflicted them,” the good book tells us, “the more they multiplied and grew”—the king escalates, ordering all Hebrew midwives to kill all of Israel’s newborn males. That, too, proves futile—the midwives ignore the harsh decree—and Pharaoh is finally left with no choice but to issue a general decree calling on all Egyptians to seek and destroy all Jewish baby boys.

And here’s the thing: It works. By the time Moses arrives, the Israelites, or at least those of them left, are a people so thoroughly devastated by systemic persecution that they fail to find within themselves the spirit necessary to rise up. When the Lord instructs Moses to shepherd his people from the house of bondage and into the wilderness, the leader-in-training scoffs: “And Moses,” we are told, “answered and said, but, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: For they will say, the Lord hath not appeared unto thee.”

Moses’ understanding of the exodus story, in other words, is sharply different from our own. He understands that nothing short of divine intervention can redeem the Israelites, and that souls bent by years of persecution would require the godly proof upfront before casting off their shackles and taking action. Resistance is futile—the Pharaoh has triumphed, unless God himself decides to overturn the Egyptian’s genocidal tide. Were it not for God’s good grace, Moses assures us, the Haggadah would’ve had a radically different ending.

Those of us who observe Pesach rejoice in this divinely inspired triumph. As well we should! Even a book as rich in awe and dread as the Bible has few moments of sublime transcendence as glorious as the ones we recall this week. We are right in seeing Pharaoh as history’s ultimate baddie, and right in cheering his ultimate downfall. But as so many of us hurry to read the Haggadah as a moral roadmap to contemporary politics, supplementing the traditional text with readings commemorating the plight of persecuted minorities and adorning the Seder plate with additional items to remind us of everything from discrimination against gays to the oppression of women, we owe it to ourselves to admit that there’s another possible lesson to be learned from the ancient story. It’s a darker one, and it argues that complete and utter victory is entirely possible.

Talk to any enlightened soul, and you’ll soon hear the exact opposite. Israel’s struggle against Palestinian terrorism is futile; America’s war on the marauders of the Islamic State is a waste of time; Europe’s attempt to identify and arrest its homegrown Islamist fanatics is doomed. Why? Because our understanding of the world is weirdly Haggadic, and because we believe that each oppressed people, whether afflicted by real burdens or by imagined slights, is destined to pull itself forth and march itself out of its own private Egypt. In this reading, any use of might is useless because the mighty, just like Pharaoh, can never really win: Just as the Egyptians failed to crush the Israelites, so is the collective will of indigenous peoples and divergent religious groups bound to persist.

Follow this argument to its logical end, and it stands to reason that your best bet is to try and understand your enemy’s motivations, to accommodate his sensibilities, to sympathetically ponder the root causes of his grievances. That may be a noble approach, but it’s not necessarily a constructive one: If Pharaoh is any example, you can comfortably wage a gradually escalating war against your perceived foes and achieve a victory so crushing that the Lord of the universe himself would have to emerge and speak and perform strange miracles in order to undermine your efforts.

If this possibility troubles you, try to imagine it in context. What, for example, if our endlessly erratic president followed up his missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase with increasingly robust measures aimed not only at the murderous Bashar al-Assad but at his enablers and financiers in Tehran? What if after a decade of trying to appease the homicidal mullahs largely because we didn’t believe in a military option that could lead to concrete victory, we gave the Pharaoh Doctrine a go? What if we set out to simply eliminate those foes who endangered our strategic interests and inflicted untold pain and suffering on millions of innocent human beings? To read the Haggadah literally, it’s quite possible that, crushed by might, our enemies would do what all humans do under similar circumstances and abandon hope for any resolution save for that which arrives from the heavens. And if might can be used for good, hallelujah.

As we contemplate how best to approach those who in every generation rise against us to destroy us, then, let us remember not only Moses but the Pharaoh as well. Putting our trust in the Lord is one strategy; fighting to win is another.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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