Thursday, January 29, 2009

Battle of the Religions

In the past, I have quoted on occasion from my teacher R. Dr. Yitzchak Meir Goodman's two volumes commentaries on Genesis and Exodus (link). His writings contain collections of derush from a wide variety of commentaries, with an occasional insight of his own. Although a student of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R. Goodman does not limit his sight to a single ideological stream but draws from a wide spectrum of scholars who provide beautiful explanations in the style of traditional midrashic exposition.

R. Goodman recently completed all five books of the Torah and the complete set has been published under the title Great Torah Lights from Great Torah Minds. What follows is a thought from the book on this week's Torah portion (vol. 2, pp. 87-88):
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Pharaoh's Amazing Patience

...and he went out from Pharaoh in a fury... (Shemos 11:8)

As we examine the lengthy confrontation between Moshe/Aharon and Pharaoh -- a cruel tyrant -- we should be struck by a powerful question: How could Pharaoh accept all these humiliations and pain and not call out, "Off with their heads!"? Since he did not yield and accept Moshe's demands, what stopped him from ordering their execution? In our verse, he warns Moshe not to see him again or he will die -- why not right then and there?

There appears to be only one logical answer. From the start Pharaoh recognized that in this confrontation lay a great challenge -- the gods of Egypt versus the God of Israel. (As we read in their first meeting, when Moshe spoke in the name of our God with the Hebrew pronunciation, Pharaoh declared that he, who worshipped many gods, had never heard of such a God.) Hence, from the beginning, this battle of wills had to be played out fairly. It would have been a most inglorious way of "winning" this clash of philosophies by simply eliminating the spokesmen from the other side. Pharaoh's ultimate goal was to win this theological battle and then to kill Moshe and Aharon.

Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, פניני דעת

This analysis can be supported by noting a comment attributed to Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (and others) on the verse found later during the plague of the firstborn (Shemos 12:30): "And Pharaoh arose at night, he and all his servants and all Egypt, and there was a great outcry...." Why is all this detail needed? Why not simply say that all of Egypt arose that night when the firstborn died at the stroke of midnight? The point is to note Pharaoh's amazing callousness. Although he heard Moshe's warning that every firstborn would die, including his own heir to the throne, he calmly went to bed, entirely unconcerned. While Rav Menachem Mendel takes this as an indication of callous cruelty, Rav Bloch's explanation may lead in a somewhat different direction. Throughout the nine plagues, some of which his magicians had been able to match, Pharaoh continued to hold to his conviction that Moshe was simply a superior magician. While he had an interesting bag of tricks, there was absolutely no way he could accomplish the preposterous threat of all bechorim [firstborns] dying in their beds at the stroke of midnight. Pharaoh went to sleep comfortably convinced that in the morning he would have called Moshe's wild bluff and proved the power of his gods. Then he would have exultantly executed Moshe and Aharon, giving him the ultimate victory in this confrontation.

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