“And all of these servants of yours will come down to me and they will bow to me and say, “Leave – you and all of the nation at your feet.” And afterwards I will leave. And he left from Paroh in anger.” (Shemot 11:8)
I work with teenagers. Many – maybe even most – have some ambivalence towards authority. This ambivalence can turn to outright antagonism when the student feels that he or she has been wronged by a figure of authority. I do not think that these feeling just go away as teenagers develop into adults. Instead, adults develop greater control over expressing these feelings. Nonetheless, each of us probably knows at least one adult who struggles with controlling resentment towards authority. And this struggle is always the most volatile when an actual wrong has occurred. So, this raises an interesting question. How far should we go in opposing wrongs done to us? Is there a point at which we are overreacting and just expressing an innate antipathy towards authority? What is that point? In order to gain some insight into the Torah’s perspective on these issues, let is consider Moshe’s relationship to Paroh.
Now, this relationship is a perfect paradigm for analyzing our question. Moshe was commanded by Hashem to vigorously oppose Paroh. This opposition to Paroh was not over imagined wrongs. Paroh was evil and deserved to be destroyed. Yet, did Moshe set limits upon himself? Did he feel that there was some level of restraint that must be retained even when dealing with an evil despot like Paroh?
Let us begin our investigation by considering our
passage. Moshe tells Paroh about the
plague of the firstborn. He tells Paroh
that all of the firstborn in Egypt will die – except the firstborn of Bnai
Yisrael. Then, he tells Paroh that his
servant will come to him – Moshe. They
will prostrate themselves before him and beg him to leave Egypt with Bnai
In the end, the scenario that Moshe described did not unfold precisely as he predicted. Actually, Paroh himself sought out Moshe and begged him to lead Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt. This discrepancy between Moshe’s prediction and actual events concerned our Sages and they offered an interesting explanation. According to Rebbi Yannai, Moshe knew that Paroh would himself seek him out. However in deference to Paroh’s position as ruler, Moshe did not reveal to Paroh that he would humiliate himself. Rebbi Yannai’s position reflects a sentiment expressed by Rebbi Channina. Rebbi Channina taught that a person should regularly pray for the welfare of the government. He explained that if it were not for the presence of government authority, there would be no order or safety in society. Rebbi Yannai maintains that Moshe’s behavior reflected his conflict was with Paroh as an individual. But he respected Paroh as the head of his government. Moshe did not wish to show disrespect or undermine this position.
“Go to Paroh in the morning. He will go out to the water and you should stand opposite him on the bank of the river. And the staff that was transformed into a serpent you should take in your hand.” (Shemot 7:15)
The Sages were not unanimous in their support of Rebbi Yannai’s position. Their dispute focuses on the above passage from Parshat VaEra. Hashem tells Moshe to demand that Paroh release Bnai Yisrael. If Paroh refuses, Hashem will turn the water in Egypt into blood. Hashem tells Moshe to confront Paroh in the morning as Paroh goes out to the water. Resh Lakish and Rebbi Yochanan dispute the tone of Moshe’s message. Rebbi Yochanan shares the perspective of Rebbi Yannai. He comments that Moshe was required to address Paroh with respect. But Resh Lakish disagrees. He asserts that Moshe was required to demonstrate disrespect to Paroh. This raises an obvious question. We understand Rebbi Yannai and Rebbi Yochanan’s reasoning. They maintain that Moshe was required to keep the dispute focused. His dispute with Paroh could not turn into a rebellion against authority. Moshe must make clear that his conflict is with Paroh the individual but he is not an anarchist. Why does Resh Lakish disagree with this reasonable approach?
But before we can begin to understand the dispute between these Sages we must recognize and deal with another difficulty in Resh Lakish’s position. There is no question that in our parasha – as explained above – Moshe omitted telling Paroh that he himself would be required to humiliate himself and beg Moshe to lead Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt. Rebbi Yaanai and Rebbi Yochanan can easily explain this act of deference. But according to Resh Lakish, Moshe was required to humiliate Paroh. How can Resh Lakish account for Moshe’s apparent deference to Paroh?
“And the servant of Paroh said to him, “Until when will this be a menace to us. Send the men and they will worship Hashem their G-d. Do you not yet know that Egypt is being destroyed?” (Shemot 10:7)
Moshe tells Paroh that Egypt will be overrun by locusts. The locusts will consume any foodstuffs that survived the plague of hail. Paroh refuses to relent. But Paroh’s servants oppose him. They strongly advise him to release Bnai Yisrael and they question the soundness of his judgment.
It is interesting that the Chumash includes this dialogue between Paroh and his ministers in the account. We have to wonder why this element is included in the narrative.
Perhaps, the answer is that this dialogue reveals that in the battle between Moshe and Paroh, Paroh’s own ministers had begun to believe that Paroh could not prevail. Paroh was a mighty king. Paroh’s ministers are characterized as his servants. Yet, these ministers accepted that Moshe was more powerful than Paroh.
If we this is the message of this incident, we have an incident into Resh Lakish’s position. Paroh was a powerful ruler. His entire persona was dependant upon the manner in which he was viewed by his servants, ministers, and followers. Moshe told Paroh that his servant would seek him – Moshe – out and ask that he lead Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. According to Resh Lakish, Moshe was not sparing Paroh or showing him deference. He was adding to Paroh’s humiliation. He was telling Paroh that his most trusted servants would abandon him. Forced to choose between their loyalty to their king and their fear of death, they would realize that Paroh could not protect them and they would abandon him. They would run to Moshe to seek salvation. Paroh would be revealed to be powerless and fragile.
In short, there are two possible reasons for Moshe telling Paroh that his servants – and not Paroh himself – would ultimately appeal to Moshe to lead the people from Egypt. According to Rebbi Yannai and Rebbi Yochnan, this was consistent with Moshe’s policy focusing on his conflict with Paroh as an individual and avoiding turning this dispute into a campaign of anarchy. According to Resh Lakish, Moshe was heaping additional humiliation upon Paroh. He was telling Paroh that in the end his most faithful servants will abandon him.
This leaves us with one question. Why does Resh Lakish disagree with the reasonable approach and considerations of Rebbi Yanai and Rebbi Yochanan?
“And a new king arose over Egypt that did not know Yosef.” (Shemot 1:8)
This passage is one of the opening passages of Sefer Shemot. Rashi’s comments on this passage are very well-known. Rashi quotes a dispute between Rav and Shmuel. According to Rav, the passage is to be understood literally. A new king arose that did not know Yosef. But Shmuel disagrees. He contends that no new king assumed power. However, the existing king adopted a new outlook and set of policies. He disavowed any recognition of the guidance and counsel that Yosef had provided to Egypt’s people and leadership. In other words, he chose to forget his debt to Yosef. 
As interesting as this dispute is, it is difficult to understand its importance. What difference does it make – in term of the overall account of the redemption from Egypt – whether the king was actually new to the throne or only new in his policies? In order to answer this question, we must analyze the dispute more carefully.
In its context, the passage above is providing an explanation for the oppression of Bnai Yisrael by the Egyptians. The Torah tells us that Yosef and his brother had died, Bnai Yisrael prospered in Egypt and then a new king arose who did not know Yosef. There are two ways to understand this last element – the new king. One possibility is that the new king simply was not a contemporary of Yosef. He did not have intimate knowledge of Yosef’s contribution to Egypt. To him Yosef was an historical figure without relevance to the current age. What was real was the prosperity of Bnai Yisrael. Faced with the phenomenon of this astounding prosperity and lacking any sense of debt to Yosef, the king exhibited the same xenophobia that has surfaced over and again in our own times. However, according to Shmuel, this king knew Yosef. He chose to ignore his contribution to Egypt. Why was he compelled to engage in this fanciful denial? He must have felt threatened by Yosef or by something that Yosef represented.
There is a fascinating comment made by our Sages regarding Yosef’s power and influence. Our Sages assert for forty years Yosef served as the minister of Paroh. In the following forty years, Yosef’s power eclipsed that of Paroh and his influence extended over the entire civilized world. With this comment as a backdrop, it is not difficult to identify the probable roots of Paroh’s attitude towards Yosef. After Yosef’s death, Paroh began to see Yosef as a usurper whose power and influenced had surpassed that of the throne of Egypt. Paroh’s battle was not an expression of xenophobic paranoia. It was an attempt to reestablish the position of the Parohs to its former – pre-Yosef – zenith. In other words, the destruction of Bnai Yisrael was an attempt to erase the memory of an embarrassing episode in the history of the Paroh’s. It was an attempt to rewrite that history.
Viewed in this manner, Rav and Shmuel’s provide two opposing perspectives on the conflict between Moshe and Paroh. According to Rav, Moshe’s conflict was with Paroh as an individual. As an individual, Paroh was an evil, paranoid racist. But according to Shmuel, Moshe’s conflict was not a personal battle. Paroh was attempting to reassert the supremacy of the authority of the Parohs through the oppression and destruction of Bnai Yisrael. Moshe was battling this corrupted expression of political authority.
Perhaps, these two perspectives are also reflected in the dispute between Rebbi Yannai, Rebbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Rebbi Yochanan and Rebbi Yanai’s position corresponds very well with Rav’s postion. Paroh’s hatred of Bnai Yisrael was an expression of his own personal wickedness. Accordingly, Moshe opposed Paroh on a personal level. But he did not allow the dispute to turn into a battle with authority. But according to Shmuel, Paroh’s entire campaign against Bnai Yisrael stemmed from an attempt to reassert the power of the Parohs and to destroy a people – Bnai Yisrael – that were a reminder of the former weakness of the Parohs. From this perspective, Resh Lakish’s position makes sense. Moshe needed to prove that Paroh’s reinterpretation of kingship was corrupt. No king can be the omnipotent ruler that Paroh would have the world accept. For Moshe win this battle, he was required to publicly humiliate Paroh. And according to Resh Lakish this was accomplished when Paroh’s own servant abandoned him to beg Moshe’s mercy.