The magical character button

Take, for example, the perplexing story of the Israelite midwives. Pharaoh gave them an order to put to death every male child that was born. The midwives disobeyed him and kept the boys alive as well. When Pharaoh confronted them, they gave him an excuse: "The Israelite women are very lively, and before the midwife arrives, they have already given birth!" Pharaoh realizes that working through the midwives will not do the job, so the issues a general order that all male children must be thrown into the river.

I find this story completely confusing. First of all, how do the midwives have the nerve to give such a lame answer to Pharaoh? Granted that they were prepared to risk their lives and not kill the males, but what kind of excuse is this? Why didn't Pharaoh simply respond that they should kill the male babies when they find them? Further, why did Pharaoh accept such insubordination? He held the power of life and death over the Israelites, or so he thought, so why didn't he punish the midwives?

The ease with which the Israelites had access to Pharaoh and could openly debate Pharaoh's policy towards them with him directly is also amazing! Moses, Aaron, the representatives of the Israelites all seem to have free run of the palace! One could never imagine such a thing in World War II Germany.

A further question. What was Pharaoh's goal of having the male children killed? If he sought to limit the growth of the Israelite population, as implied in the verses which stress just how fruitful Israel was, he should've had the female children eliminated. After all, one male could impregnate many females, so killing the male children is less effective. If here and there, a male child was missed, the Israelites would continue to multiply in any case. Not so if the girls were killed.

One more question, and then we will try to answer them all. After the Israelites are liberated, and after they have received the Torah, there are a number of Commandments relating to the various nations that have oppressed us. First and foremost, is the commandment to eradicate the memory of Amalek. Then, we are enjoined to not despise the Edomite, "for he is your brother."

But one contrast seems to be striking. Regarding the Ammonites and Moabites, the Torah tells us to not allow them to join our people ever. Why? Because they did not bring out water and bread to us as we traveled through the wilderness. Regarding Egypt, however, we have an opposite approach. "Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a guest in his land." What? What kind of hospitality was that? Decades upon decades of bitter servitude? And what kind of crime did the Ammonites and Moabites commit? It seems that what they did was far worse than the Egyptians! How can this be?

Our rabbis, perhaps in response to this question, tell us a story about Pharaoh's intentions regarding the Israelite males. His fortunetellers had informed him that a savior had been born to the Israelites. This savior would liberate them from Egyptian slavery and lead them out of the country. Pharaoh was not prepared to allow this to happen, so he ordered all of the males to be killed. In this way, he hoped that that savior would be among those eliminated.

From all of the above questions, I have come to a possible explanation. It is that the Egyptians were not "anti-Semitic," and did not hate the Israelites in the least. Allow me to explain.

I believe there are three kinds of jealousy in the world. The worst kind is one where the jealous individual despises the object of his jealousy and wishes him every harm. This is what Cain did to Abel. The best kind of jealousy is where the jealous individual wishes to learn from the example of the object of his jealousy and thus improve himself. In rabbinical literature, this is called "Jealousy of the scribes," which simply causes the jealous individual to become ever more scholarly.

But there is a middle kind of jealousy, not hatred, but not love and admiration either. It is when the jealous person wishes to subordinate the object of their jealousy to their own ambitions. Think of a hostile corporate takeover as opposed to a smear campaign.

I believe that Pharaoh and his Egyptian leadership possessed this kind of jealousy. They wanted Egypt to be the most powerful and successful empire in the world but were jealous of the remarkable success of the Hebrews. They held no hatred towards them, which makes sense in the context of what Joseph had done in saving Egypt. Nonetheless, they did not wish to befriend them or learn from them. They wished to harness their uniqueness for their own aims.

If this is true, we can understand the initial reluctance of Pharaoh to simply order the execution of the Jewish male babies. He told the midwives, in typical Mafia fashion, "Make it look like an accident." Make sure that the male babies are not successfully born, prevent the necessary life-saving actions during childbirth and let the babies die by themselves. To this, the midwives responded that by the time they got to the Israelite women, they had already given birth. Pharaoh had never ordered them to actually actively kill the babies. The Hebrew term used is "cause them to die." The words for kill and murder are not the same.

Pharaoh's obsession with a hostile takeover of the Israelites also explains why he wanted the male children eliminated. In the ancient world, certainly, it was the males who determine the identity of the family. If the girls would be killed, the Israelite males would then marry Egyptian girls and thus convert them to the Israelite way of life. If the boys were gone, then all that would be left were the girls who would then be married by Egyptians, guaranteeing their complete assimilation. That, after all, was Pharaoh's goal. He preferred the neater method of making it look like an accident, but when push came to shove, he ordered the boys thrown into the river.

(In a side point, our sages teach us that the stories of the book of Genesis foretell what would befall the descendants of the patriarchs in later generations. When Abraham and Sarah descended to Egypt because of a famine, Abraham requested that Sarah proclaim herself his sister instead of his wife. He was afraid that if they knew that he was her husband, they would kill him and take her away. Indeed, when she said that Abraham was her brother, that did save his life. She was then taken to be Pharaoh's wife. In a sense, this was the new Pharaoh's goal as well. Eliminate the potential husbands, and take the girls to be the Egyptian wives.)

There is a test written into the commandments to see whether we are truly free of both negative kinds of jealousy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva claimed that the essence of the Torah was the commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Somebody with one of the two negative jealousies will be incapable of fulfilling that commandment. Certainly, if they hate their competitor it will be impossible. But even if they simply view the person as a competitor, while they may not hate them, they will not be able to love them. Only one who views a competitor as a teacher will be able to observe this law.

Imagine you have a button which, when pressed, will grant your "competitor" immediate excellence and success. Would you be able to press that button? I'm not talking about a case where your competitor is seeking to put you out of business. I'm talking about a case where you both are simply doing your business and trying your best. Would you help your competitor? If your interest is to learn how to continually improve, you will press that button with gusto and then ask your competitor how he or she made it to the next level.

Now we can understand the difference between the Egyptians, on the one hand, and the Ammonites and Moabites on the other. The former were not haters. Yes, they were jealous, and they got punished for it. But they did not seek to destroy, only to subsume. But the Ammonites and Moabites refused to bring water and bread to a thirsty and suffering mass of humanity only from hatred. As a result, their character invalidates them from future entry to the nation of kindness, the nation of Israel.

How to Use the Staff of God

In the remarkable scene when Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, there is a contest of the staffs. Aaron throws his to the ground, and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh, unimpressed, signals to his magicians to do the same thing. Surprisingly, God allows the trick to work, and the Egyptians' staffs also become snakes. The big twist, pardon the pun, is that Aaron's snake swallows the snakes of the Egyptians, and then returns to being a staff when Aaron grabs it. The Egyptians are left without their staffs or snakes. Tradition tells us that the staff of Aaron did not gain size despite having swallowed the three Egyptian snakes.

The commentator Katav Sofer writes that this episode teaches us a fundamental principle of miracles. Both a snake and a staff can inflict pain, but one is the initiator and one is merely the means. A snake initiates the attack. A staff is a passive piece of wood in the hands of somebody else. Pharaoh believed that he was a snake, that he controlled the suffering inflicted on the children of Israel.

In truth, he was merely a staff. His snakes were swallowed by Aaron's snake, and became a staff in Aaron's hands. In other words, Pharaoh was a puppet, not an initiator.

Why was the staff necessary for performing miracles? In order to hide the miracle as much as possible. This is because open miracles are vastly inferior to concealed ones. Open miracles involve a complete suspension of the rules of nature. Such a suspension will, of necessity, be short-lived. God prefers nature, and will not suspend its laws indefinitely. Even the miracle of the manna, the longest lasting miracle in the Torah, came to an end after 40 years.

God vastly prefers a hidden maker of miracles. In other words, He prefers when we human beings are the agents of miracles. He prefers when we lift up the world towards heaven, rather than heaven coming down and stepping on nature's toes. So, even though the plagues in Egypt were fairly open miracles, Moses and Aaron should still use the staff to show that a man must be the one to bring about the miracle. God does the work, but man must be the initiator.

In Judaism, there is a rule: we do not rely upon miracles. A person is not allowed to enter into an impossible situation and rely on the fact that God will suspend the laws of nature to save him. There is a joke about the man who is urged to get on the bus out of town before the flood waters rise up and drown him. He declined, claiming that he will pray and God will save him. The water comes up to his waist, and a boat floats by. "Climb aboard," the people yell. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me." The water is up to his shoulders, and a helicopter lowers a ladder for him. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me."

He drowns. When he gets up to heaven, he complains that he had perfect faith! "Why, God, didn't you save me?" To which God replies, "You fool! I sent you a bus, a boat, and a helicopter. Why didn't you get on board?"

God does not prefer revealed miracles. In a very real sense, God wants us all to use The Staff of God that is in our possession. He wants us to pursue the good, even if it seems impossible. We must reach out the staff, and God will do the rest.

What is the greatest miracle? When a person lives their life according to the Commandments. This world is so full of temptation, social pressure, and skepticism. It is very hard to live a life of faith. I remember being teased about the kosher hamburgers I insisted on eating and a non-Jewish summer camp. And yet, I would not touch the nonkosher hamburgers. A person living a life of holiness is, indeed, the greatest miracle. In all of life's moments of choice, we must grab the staff of God and stretch it out. A miracle will happen, and we will walk in the right path.

How to Confront Evil

Moses first connects to God when he happens upon the burning bush. This bush, a dried out and highly flammable plant, was engulfed in flames. Miraculously, it remained unharmed and unburned. When Moses approaches, God informs him that he is standing upon holy ground, and he must remove his shoes. He then proceeds to instruct Moses of the mission: go to Egypt, bring the children of Israel out to freedom.

Moses is highly skeptical. First, he asks for all kinds of proofs and raises all kinds of potential problems. How do I know you will be with us? If they ask me what Your name is, what should I tell them? Each time, God reassures him and gives him usable answers.

Then, Moses hesitates again. "I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue," Moses said. God responds, "who will put a mouth in a man in the first place?" In other words, your stuttering should not slow you down. Nonetheless, Moses begs to have a spokesman, something which upsets God, but he agrees. He will send Moses's brother Aaron.

I never quite understood this entire dialogue. How can Moses argue with God? If God tells him he can do it, well darn it, he can!

There is a tension between the world of faith in the world of practical reality. In the world of faith, miracles are evident. But Moses, like Jacob before him, realizes that he lives in the world of practical reality. Jacob had been assured of a secure future, yet when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men, he became terrified. What of God's assurance? It was not enough for Moses either, because Moses understood the apparent absurdity of his mission. He was supposed to go to Pharaoh and demand that he free hundreds of thousands of valuable slaves. How is that going to work?

In the world of faith, it's no problem. But in the real world, what hope would there be that Pharaoh would agree to such an outlandish request? And yet that is the symbolism of the burning bush. The physical world won't allow that bush to survive. But the physical world is not the only world we inhabit. Our world connects to the spiritual world, which is the world of faith. Our mission is to break through the physical limitations of the physical world, and bring the holiness of the spiritual world into our lives.

In other words, when you confront the burning bush, take off your shoes. That is where holiness is, in those windows into the world of faith. The bush was such a window.

But we do not commonly encountered burning bushes that are not consumed, so where can we access the spiritual world? Through our power of speech! Moses needed to learn this lesson, more than any other. Yes, he stuttered, and that should disqualify him from delivering such an important message. But God tells him that it is not the physical property of speech that matters, but the spiritual content of it. "Life and death are in the hands of speech," said King Solomon. The way we use our power of speech will determine if we inhabit a world that is connected to the spiritual world of faith.

So Moses had nothing to fear, because God promised He would be with him. Moses was afraid this promise wasn't enough, if he had to function in the physical world. God was telling him that his speech would be inspired, and would break through the limitations of the physical world. He would indeed get Pharaoh's attention.

What's fascinating is that Moses did not tell Pharaoh that his enslavement of the Hebrews was immoral. He didn't thunder about freedom and liberty as basic human rights. And when referring to God, he did not imply that God was also in charge of the Egyptians. He talked about the God of the Hebrews, and he talked about what would happen to the Hebrews if they aren't given the opportunity to go and sacrifice to Him. Not a word about the Egyptians, their theology, or what would happen to them.

All Moses said is, "let my people go to sacrifice to our God in the wilderness, lest He strike us with sword or plague." Fascinating. God is guiding Moses into the psychology of Pharaoh. The Egyptians believed in multitudes of gods, and believed that each nation had their own. He was not confronting Pharaoh, he was not insulting Pharaoh. He was speaking his language, and urging him to accept in his own terms the religious need to let the Israelites go.

Confrontation may be fun, and sometimes we certainly must speak truth to power, but there is a smarter way. Use our speech to connect with the other, and to gently move them on the path of spirituality. The way we talked determines how much of a miraculous life we can live. We should take courage from Moses's example, and not be afraid to go and talk to Pharaoh. And we should take heed of how God instructed Moses to do so, with understanding and a determination to communicate.