October 17, 2021 |

Of Pharaohs and Faith

I was at a beautiful wedding this past week. There is nothing more enjoyable than watching a lovely young couple - obviously deeply in love - celebrating the beginning of the creation of a new Jewish home together. They were surrounded by family and friends who had come from as far away as Australia to shower them with love, to dance for them and to celebrate. Before the ceremony, as we were about to finish the ketuba (marriage document), we began to discuss - what else? - divorce.

I always try to strike the right balance between frivolity and seriousness on this topic. I always assure them that it is the furthest thing from my mind to imagine that they will not spend their entire lives together. Otherwise, I wouldn't be officiating at their wedding. But SOMEONE out there is getting divorced and somewhere out there, it's getting ugly. People become irrational when they get divorced. People who used to be deeply in love sometimes find that they are unable to act even decently to their "exes." Somewhere out there, among other petty and not-so-petty cruelties, a husband is refusing to give his wife a "get", a Jewish divorce. Without it, she can not re-marry and so he holds it over her head like a bludgeon, leaving her an "aguna", a chained woman, to a marriage that for all other intents and purposes is over.

We discuss this topic at a wedding so that the couple will sign a Halachic pre-nup, an agreement that - if it ever becomes necessary -- they will both submit to binding arbitration in front of a Rabbinical court to handle the Jewish details of their divorce. Among the stipulations of the pre-nup is that if the husband fails to appear in court or to give his wife a get, he obligates himself (from the time that their joint domesticity ends) to pay her $150 per day to support her. We apply this rule for two reasons:

a) a husband really is obligated to support his wife until they are fully divorced

b) a husband cannot be compelled to divorce his wife. He must do it of his OWN free will.

The Talmud, however, enables us to help him re-evaluate his priorities, by "pressuring him until he says 'I want to.'" (kofin ad she-yomar rotzeh ani; Arachin 21a) For some reason, $150 a day does wonders to help him decide that he really does want to give his wife a get. [There are other forms of compulsion, including picketing outside his place of business, listing his name on a whistle-blowing website and, in Israel, loss of driver's license and other sanctions. Incidentally, $150 a day annualizes to about $54,000 and is a variable figure, indexed by the CPI.]

We find a similar situation in the relationship between Par'oh and the Jews. I must confess to a certain grim satisfaction - like the son of an abused wife -- in reading each year about the come-uppance of Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the hands of God. When the family of Israel first came down to Egypt, they were treated like royalty. But, like a dysfunctional marriage, they became used and abused as slaves. Finally, God comes to the rescue, toying with and torturing the Egyptians, turning the tables on them, until they free the Israelites. By the end of the story, nothing makes the Egyptians happier - or more relieved - than to see Moshe and his people leaving! The Egyptians even shower them with gifts, all the better to get them to just go.

This is the same process as the recalcitrant husband. God "pressures him until he says 'I want to'" send out the Israelites. But what's so interesting about both cases is that the final decisions have to be made by Pharaoh, or by the husband. Although the court could compel a man to give a divorce against his will, Jewish law requires it be of his volition. Though God could have taken the Jews out of Egypt by sheer compulsion - against the will of Pharaoh - He refuses to do so without Pharaoh's buy-in.

The Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, early 17th c.) suggests that Moshe and the children of Israel did not initially understand God's plan. When Moshe presents the plan from God to take them out of Egypt, the Torah tells us "they did not listen to Moshe, out of shortness of breath and hard labor." (Ex. 6:9) R. Lunshitz notes that they did not even bother responding to him. Only a crazy man, they thought, would try to do an exodus against Pharaoh's will.

God then has to make it clear that without Pharaoh's approval, the Jews will not go. But why? Why does God need Par'o's approval? I propose that God didn't need Par'o's approval, per se. Neither did Moshe or Aaron. But the Jewish people did.

In the pride and celebration of the exodus, we often skip blithely over the condition of the Jews at this time. We rightly focus on the miracles and how they never gave up hope and how God heard our prayers etc. etc. But the situation of our ancestors in Egypt was dire, both physically and spirituality. Physically, they were in forced labor under a government flirting with genocide as a solution to the 'Jewish problem' (see Ex. Chap. 1). Spiritually, our rabbis teach, they were at the "49th level of impurity." They maintained a semblance of spirituality, but they were not religious, not connected to God. Even as deeply oppressed outsiders, it is clear that they stood in awe of Egyptian culture and wealth. I have made the case in other articles (and the Kli Yakar mentions it as well) that they may not have wanted to leave Egypt at all.

Part of God's plan for reviving the Jewish spirit is the degradation of the Egyptians and all the miracles. The point of a plague like sh'chin, boils, affecting the Egyptians, but not the Jews, was to make the downtrodden Israelites feel that they were special.

But I don't think this is the answer. Oddly, what re-connects the Jews to their God and their faith is less what God did FOR them or TO Par'o, but how it affected Par'o and the Egyptians spiritually.

During the plague of the death of the first-born, we see the moment of real capitulation:

"And he called to Moshe and Aaron at night and he said: "Get up and go from out of my nation - not only you, but the children of Israel and go serve your God as you have said. Also take your sheep and your cattle as you said and go - and also pray for me." And Egypt forcefully gathered on the nation and hurriedly expelled them from the land, for they said, "we will all die."" (Exodus 12:31-33)

From this selection, we see that not only did Par'o make the final call to send the Jews out (the 'I want you to go'), but that he came, in some sense, to believe in God as well.

When Pa'roh was first approached by Moshe, he says, basically, "Who is this God person anyway? I don't know him and I'm not freeing my slaves." (For his exact language, see Exodus 5:2). From this stage of arrogant denial, we find a Par'o in this week and next week's portion who says "God is the righteous one and I am the sinner" (Ex. 9:27) and who asks the Jews to pray for him on their way out of Egypt.

I am certainly not out to portray Par'oh as a righteous man. Far from it. But he was originally a very powerful God-denier. When the atheist comes over to religion, it makes quite a statement. Imagine Richard Dawkins writing a follow-up book called "The God Discovery" and the impact it might have on the world. [Par'oh himself probably believed in Egyptian gods, but not a Hebrew one.]

It seems to me that the Jewish people didn't have enough pride in their Judaism...until Par'oh did. When Madonna, er, I mean Par'oh, starts learning kabbalah or wearing a red string, suddenly everyone wants in on Jewish spirituality.

I don't make this argument proudly. If our generation needs talk show hosts and celebrities to stir us to pride in our ancient heritage, it must mean that we, too, are sunk down far in the levels of impurity. It must mean that we too are in a deep spiritual depression and crisis. What will happen to us when being Jewish becomes uncool again?

At the same time, I am not too much of a purist. I want Jews to connect to and be proud of their Jewishness and doing it through popular culture, celebrities and all sorts of other foolishness is not beneath me. If Par'oh's change of heart inspires others, I'm ok with that. After all, that's my suggestion for why God wanted Par'oh to send the children of Israel out of Egypt of his free will.

All I'm saying is that it's preferable for pride to come from within. We don't need anyone else to tell us how precious Torah is if we know it in our own hearts. We don't need anyone to put Jewish characters on sitcoms or for Sacha Baron Cohen to keep shabbes for us to know that it's cool. We can do it on our own! Go Jewish pride! Shabbat shalom!

For Further study

1) Maimonides

With regard to compelling a husband to give a get, Maimonides' famous formulation is:

"this one who doesn't want to [properly] divorce - since he does want to be a part of Israel and he wants to do all the mitzvot and to eschew all the sins, but it's his [evil] inclination that has overpowered him. So, since he will be struck (i.e. compelled) until his inclination is weakened and he will say "I want to", this is a divorce of his own volition.. (Laws of Gerushin 2:20)

Would this argument work for Par'o, i.e.that deep down he really wanted to be a good person and let the Jews go, but his evil inclination overpowered him. If not, should we not consider the case similar?

2) Another interesting parallel between the laws of Jewish divorce and Egypt is that Jewish law requires the husband to "send her away" (Deut. 24:1), i.e. to perform an act of separation between them. We might ordinarily consider this a sending into exile, but if the comparison is to Egypt, it would be seen as an act of redemption and exodus. If the couple is truly incompatible, this seems to be the better reading.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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