Upon meeting Moses, it is difficult to be impressed by him. It is difficult to understand why God chose him for the crucial task of leading the people out of Israel. So far he has turned down this opportunity, and only accepted it after being coerced and reassured by the presence of his brother Aaron. Moses, destined to be one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people? Really? A little hard to see.
And yet God does not give up on him. God pushes Moses, encourages him, ensures that Moses not feel alone, or abandoned. And in this week’s parasha, God offers Moses the ultimate lesson in being comfortable with a difficult situation: “Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out of the water, and station yourself at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake” (Shemot 7:15). This tactic of perceiving someone as a common human being is commonly used to appease a nervous speaker (i.e. when speakers are encouraged to imagine that the audience is wearing their underwear, etc…).
There is no reason given as to why Pharaoh might be swimming in the Nile, presumably alone, or it would not be that easy for Moses to approach him. Perhaps it was a required morning ceremonial, or perhaps simply an opportunity of leisure for the ruler. Midrash Rabbah offers an interesting interpretation: “Pharaoh only went to the water in the morning because he claimed that he was a god, and as such did not need to relieve himself. That is why he went to water very early in the morning” (Shemot Rabbah 9;8). And thus, upon meeting Pharaoh in this situation, Moses was able to realize that he was nothing more than a human being, and his equal.
There are two points that come out of that particular episode. First of all, we are reminded of our constant need to put individuals on a pedestal. As a result, we are intimidated by them, even fear them, and on occasion will find it difficult to acknowledge their faults, and reprimand them. By doing so, we ultimately underline our weaknesses, and forget how strong and worthy we really are, and create unhealthy situations which can become harmful.
In addition, through the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, we are reminded of the need to maintain humility and yet remain aware of our strength. By encouraging Moses to go and seek out Pharaoh when he does, God is placing Moses in a position of strength. Surely, Pharaoh might have felt uncomfortable being surprised in a compromising situation for a man of his stature. Therefore God creates a situation in which God knows that a person’s integrity (Pharaoh’s) will be challenged. And that is definitely food for thought. Are there situations that require and excuse such actions? Does improper behavior justify an improper answer? Are we permitted to excuse our wrongdoings if they are in answer to an offense we have received, directly or indirectly?
A leader is not so simply because of what people think of him or her, but also, and foremost because of the way he or she treats others, particularly those considered as adversaries. It is easy to be kind and considerate to those we hold dear, to those who we feel deserve our support and our encouragement. It is much more difficult and challenging to ensure that we remain ethical in our dealings with those whom we fear or dislike, for that is when we are the strongest.
Rabbi Celia Surget
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.