Excellent Jews

A question often asked is why it was necessary to bring 10 plagues in order to liberate the Israelites? For example, the rabbis of the Midrash tell us a story of how Pharaoh was terrified by Aaron's staff. After it swallowed up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians, Pharaoh was terrified that the staff was going to come for him next.

So, why didn't Moses indeed threaten to sick the staff on Pharaoh unless he let the Israelites go? He most certainly would've agreed! Not only does this not happen, but God allows the Egyptian magicians to re-create some of Moses' miracles. They can turn their staffs into reptiles, they can turn water into blood, they can bring out more frogs into Egypt. Then, there are some plagues they can't do, such as lice and wild animals. The last time they are mentioned is when the plague of skin boils occurs, and "the magicians could not stand in front of Moses because of their boils." What does this little anecdote tell us?

Another question that bothers me is the seemingly dishonest way that Moses phrases his request to Pharaoh. "Let us go three days in the wilderness, so we may sacrifice to our Lord," Moses requests. It is clear to us, however, that Moses has no intention of returning to Egypt after those three days. When the Israelites go, they will go for eternity. So why not be honest with Pharaoh, and tell him exactly what he is asking for?

The answer to the first question is quite profound. The Exodus was not exclusively for the benefit of the Israelites, but rather for the Egyptians, and, through them, for the entire world. The Exodus continues to this day! The echoes of that transformative event are reflected in the editorial choices of almost every news organization, world over. How so?

God instructs Moses in the art of persuasion. The entire process of the 10 plagues, including God hardening Pharaoh's heart, was geared to persuade Egypt to change its direction. And not just Egypt, rather the whole world.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk explains the importance of Egypt and its magicians. This was the great Empire of the day. This was the land where science and culture were at their peak. The entire world looked to Egypt for leadership. It went so deep that, according to the Midrash, the magicians of Pharaoh were actually little children! Egypt was the land of black magic, and thus its theology was also massively influential. What was needed now was the first step of persuasion, to catch attention.

It's no great accomplishment for me to beat my four-year-old son in a running race. It's an impressive accomplishment if I can beat an Olympic gold medal athlete in a running race! That would mean that I am the best. That would get the attention of every single sportswriter in the world.

So it was with Egypt. God allows the Egyptian magicians to ply their craft, but, at some point, He shows His mastery over them. As the song goes, "anything you can do, I can do better." God is Master of the Masters, King of the Kings. Rabbi Meir Simcha explains that the fact that the magicians couldn't stand before Moses because of the boils as being one of embarrassment, not physical ability. They were humiliated, because they themselves had boils, but could not inflict them on Moses. They could no longer compete.

There is a hidden lesson here. A Jew, whose eyes are always to God, will strive for excellence. A great Rabbi, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, was known far and wide as a brilliant mathematician. When a leading mathematician, who was an assimilated Jews, met the Rabbi, he asked him how the Rabbi knew so much about math? After all, most of his time was spent in studying Torah! While he, himself, was devoted exclusively to math, and yet this Rabbi knew as much as he did.

The Rabbi answered with a parable: a man sees a shop owner deliver a large order in many boxes, and realizes that the customer gets to keep the boxes. This man needed boxes himself, so he asked the shop owner to give him a supply. The shop owner then quoted a high price to him. "But that other man got all those boxes for free," said the man. "Correct," said the shop owner, "but he paid for a large order of goods. The boxes were simply included in that order."

In other words, because the Rabbi was immersed in Torah, the "boxes" of worldly wisdom, including mathematics, are included at very low cost. But you, who have no interest in Torah, and only focus on the mathematics, must pay the full price in time and effort.

In order for the Jew to fulfill his purpose in the world, he must pursue excellence in every field of endeavor that he engages. Most importantly, he must pursue ethical excellence. By doing so, we gain the attention of all of humanity. They then ponder where all of this excellence came from, and will thus find their way to God. It is God who gives us the power and wisdom to achieve excellence. If we believe in God, we must pursue excellence. If you don't buy enough Godliness, you won't get the boxes.

But that is not where it stops, because intellectual attention will not bring about a change in behavior. For that, we need action. In our prayers, we ask God to help us "learn and teach, guard and do." I believe that is why Moses asked for three days, and why God kept hardening Pharaoh's heart. It was critical to get Pharaoh to take one good step, do one good thing, for the right reasons. Had he released the Israelites from fear, it would not have indicated any change in his character. That was not the end game. It was to get Pharaoh started on the path of goodness.

That's why I believe that when Moses was asking for three days in the wilderness, he intended to initiate Pharaoh on a path of good deeds that would culminate with his ultimate release of the Israelites forever. Let them go for three days, "and then let's talk." Such is human nature. We crave consistency, and if Pharaoh can do a completely good deed, let the Israelites go for three days, and not from fear but from kindness, he will then continue on that new path. He will release the slaves, and perhaps change the Egyptian society. And from there, to he whole world.

In the end, even this failed, but that's not important. Humans have free choice, and Pharaoh chose evil until the end. What's important for us is to learn what Moses attempted to do. Our job as Jews and as God's partners, as it were, is to persuade the entire world to live according to God's will. We don't do it with the sword, because the sword does not change the heart. We do it in the method of the Exodus: 1. Gain the world's attention by showing that God is the source of all excellence, and 2. Encourage the world to take baby steps in the direction of goodness. Once that is accomplished, change and redemption will grow faster and faster.

The Clash of Titans

The future leadership of the Jewish people was to belong to Judah. True, Joseph's descendents had their day, but it is Judah, through his star descendent King David, who learned the permanent kingship over the tribes of Israel. This is surprising, considering Joseph's meteoric rise to power and his status high above that of his brothers.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk suggests that Joseph had not intended to reveal his identity to the brothers at the point that he did. His second dream as a youth had the sun, the moon, and the 11 stars bowing to him. The sun and moon symbolized his parents, and even though the brothers had already bowed, his father and mother (represented by Bilhah, his deceased mother's maidservant) have not yet done so. Joseph wanted the dream to be fulfilled in its entirety.

Rabbi Meir Simcha continues that Judah's speech, in which he so eloquently described his father's emotional turmoil and how he himself was ready to take Benjamin's place as Joseph's captive, forced Joseph to change his approach. There were other people in the room, Egyptians, in front of whom Joseph felt that continuing his harsh act towards the brothers would desecrate the name of God. Joseph was a Hebrew, and for him to behave cruelly in front of the Egyptians might be a bad example.

Why was Joseph so insistent on making the dreams come true himself? Why did they have to come through completely? And why was his concern for what the Egyptians might think such a significant factor that he changed his mind?

The answer lies in why Jacob showed favoritism for Joseph in the first place. A parent wants their children to carry their legacy forward. Isaac had preferred Esav because he felt that Esav would better make his way in the world than the innocent Jacob. Jacob himself was determined to not repeat his father's error, and chose which son to favor with great care. (The rabbis are critical of this, warning that a father should never show any favoritism to one over others of his children.)

Jacob's prime concern was that his son be a person of complete truth. Truth is not partial, it is universal. A man who lives according to truth cannot be silent when falsehood abounds. Such a person will commit to fixing the world, and that is exactly what Jacob wanted his son to do. Just as Esav had given his father Isaac gifts (the meats that he hunted) which gave Isaac the impression that Esav was the proper son to favor, Joseph also gave his father gifts. What were they?

The first was the fact that he kept his father informed of his brothers' misdeeds. A person of truth would do such a thing. He would not tolerate concealing what he saw if he felt it could be corrected.

The second was the second dream. Jacob rebuked Joseph for the claim that he and his wife would bow to Joseph, but, at the same time, the Torah tells us that he kept this dream in mind. I believe he did so because the dream implied that Joseph was going to have such importance in the world that even his parents would bow to him. He was somebody who would change history, and that was exactly what Jacob was looking for in a son.

Now we can understand why Joseph wanted to fulfill the dream in its entirety. As a man of truth, he knew that truth goes 100%. But, as a man of truth, he knew that he had a responsibility for bringing the entire world closer to truth. By demonstrating cruelty to his brothers in front of the Egyptians, he felt he would do even more damage to his mission of truth.

But there is a danger in too much truth. Human beings are not always truthful, and therefore Truth would harm them. Mercy is a different attribute which claims that, instead of destroying falsehood, it should be redeemed by being brought closer to truth. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva took some of the sages up into heaven. He gave them a strange warning, "when you see the place of the pure marble, do not say 'water water!'" Why? Because there is a verse in the Bible that says that "The speaker of falsehoods will not endure before Me."

In other words, even though this pure marble appeared to be water, and the rabbis felt they were saying the truth, the tolerance for falsehood in heaven is far lower. This was Joseph. He suspended his own feelings in the service of truth. He wouldn't even allow the brothers to feel guilt for what they had done to him since it was clearly part of a Divine plan. He did point out their own falsehoods when, responding to Judah's claim that if Benjamin were to be harmed that it might cost Jacob's life, by asking if Jacob was alive now after what had happened to he himself.

Judah, on the other hand, was a repentant sinner. He had admitted his misdeeds with Tamar, and was ready to take responsibility for his part in the sale of Joseph. So much so, that he was ready to take Benjamin's place as an act of ultimate responsibility. Judah gave much importance to feelings and humanity, and thus was deemed the better leader among men.

Truth is absolute, stretching across all areas of life. Humanity, feelings, are also the truths of the human being. A true leader knows how to guide those feelings to bring each and every person closer to the truth of God.