“And the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled and the attitude of Pharaoh and his advisers towards the Jewish People changed and they said, “What did we do that we sent away the Jews from being our slaves?” (Beshalach 14:5).
We laugh at Pharaoh. What kind of diminutive idiot was he? Just a few days before he had got up in the middle of the night and searched desperately for Moshe Rabeinu to tell him to leave with all the people and animals. Even though he had said earlier, “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice?” after makas habechoros he decided that he could not stand against the power of Hashem and freed the Jews unconditionally.
Yet a few days later he changed his mind again. His chopping and changing, his promising and reneging on his promise, his admitting he was a rosho then continuing in his obstinate ways had been going on for months. A person with sechel comes to a decision and keeps to it. He was clearly unbalanced and totally unreliable and that is how we remember him. Is there anything we can learn from such an idiot? Surely not; but read on.
In the Hagada we read, “Reb Yehuda used a mnemonic to list the ten makos: Detzach Adash B’Achab.” He divided the ten makos into three sections. The plagues of blood, frogs and lice. The plagues of wild animals, pestilence and boils and the plagues of hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of the firstborn. The Malbim explains that the first group of plagues prove that Hashem exists. Pharaoh said that the first two plagues were the result of black magic and only after the third plague did he admit that it was “the finger of Hashem.” The second group show that He involves Himself in this world, making sure that only the Egyptians suffer and not the Jews. The third group of plagues prove that there is no power to challenge Hashem who is the Master of everything.
The Rambam writes, “It is a mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and blow trumpets whenever a community suffers a tragedy. This is part of the way of teshuva because when we cry out, we all realise that the tragedy has happened because of our sinful deeds. But if people say that that what has happened was just ‘natural,’ or a ‘coincidence,’ this is the way of cruelty and causes people to continue in their sinful deeds. (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3)
In another place he writes, “What is complete teshuva? This is when a person is in the same circumstances as before and has the possibility of sinning and has an equally strong yetzer horah but does not sin. This is complete teshuva. If a person does teshuva in his old age and has no possibility of repeating his sin, he is still called a baal teshuva. What is teshuva? If a person stops doing his sin and decides never to do it again and he regrets having sinned and the One who knows secrets can testify about him that he will not do this sin again. (Hilchos Teshuva 2:1-2).
Kiddushin (33a) brings the view of Reb Issi ben Yehuda which is the accepted halacha that we have to stand up for an elderly person, even if he is unlearned. Rebbe Yochonon used to stand up for elderly people even if they were not Jewish. He explained that any elderly person has undoubtedly experienced many crises during their lifetime and had seen many miracles. (Rashi).
Hashem is the ultimate Baal Chessed. He wants us to earn our place in the World to Come through successfully confronting our challenges in this world. And He wants us to grow through our experiences in this world. As He did in Mitzrayim, He sends many signs of His existence, of His involvement in even the mundane matters of this world and of His unmatched power. This is all for our good. However we may not always respond in the right way. Like Pharaoh, we can dismiss events as magic, luck or coincidence until we accept that what happened was truly the “finger of Hashem.” When events happen in our family, neighbourhood or community, we can fail to realise that Hashem is sending us a message. Contrary to the clear words of the Rambam, we may be tempted to carry on with our normal lives, failing to take advantage of the potential for spiritual growth that Hashem is offering us. When we see how much He helps us extricate ourselves from various crises and are aroused to thank Hashem for His many miracles, the danger is that this arousal may be short lived. We can make promises but, like Pharaoh, a few days later, we can forget them.
Finally we can fall into the “death trap”. If we have certain yetzer horas that we find difficult to overcome, we can fool ourselves into thinking that all will be well in the end. We intend to say the vidui sincerely before passing away, doing teshuva for everything. After all, didn’t the Rambam say that teshuva in old age is still teshuva, even if it is not the best teshuva. However there is a problem with this plan; the Rambam says that even if a person cannot prove his teshuva is sincere, because he has no opportunity to do that sin again, the teshuva in his heart must be strong enough that the “One who knows secrets can testify that he would not sin again.” Let’s say a person, facing death, finally realizes the folly of his actions and regrets having done them but then unexpectedly recovers and goes back to his old ways. Obviously his teshuva was not sincere. Pharaoh too, facing death during Makas Bechoros went through the motions of complete teshuva and sent out all the Jews, but a few days later, when the danger had passed, he was back to his old antics. His teshuva was not on the Rambam’s level one or level two.
Yes, we can learn from Pharaoh, not to be like him. Not to spiritually zigzag, not to promise and not keep our promises and not to claim that miracles are really just a lucky coincidence. But, on the contrary, we should take advantage of every event in our lives to grow in emuna, to become more and more certain that Hashem exists, that He involves Himself in even the mundane matters of this world and that there is no power besides Hashem. Then we will have completed our own personal yetzias Mitzrayim.