January 4, 2014
Rabbi Shelton Donnell
Oh, how we Jews suffered in Egypt! How bitter was the slavery that we endured for so many years. Well we knew the salty bitterness of sweat and the sting of the taskmaster’s whip upon our bare backs. Year after year we toiled and died to build the cities of Pithom and Ramses. Pithom and Ramses! Abominations! Monuments to the vain glory of one man, Pharaoh!
To the Egyptians Pharaoh was a god. The light of his presence was said to shine with the blinding brightness of the sun itself. Few dared to look upon the royal visage for fear of being struck dead from the shear magnificence.
Ever since childhood, Pharaoh heard the flattery and sycophantic praises of those around him. In fact, he really believed that he was a god! And so, he had to build himself Pithom and Ramses as symbols of his greatness and omnipotence. These cities would last forever as a lasting reminder of the grandeur of his rule.
And we Jews became the pawns of Pharaoh’s ambition. We were the tools he used to fulfill his dreams. On our backs we carried the bricks. With our feet we mixed the mortar. Everyone together, young and old, men women and children, everyone had to pay tribute to Pharaoh with our lives like cattle bound to the plow.
And then came Moses. Our deliverer! The one whom the God Adonai sent to free us. And when Moses approached Pharaoh and demanded our release, what did Pharaoh do? He increased our labors! Working us to the brink of death, he now demanded the impossible of us! His ambition to prove his divinity with brick and mortar and the agony of our slavery blinded him to reality. The impossible must be made possible to achieve his dreams!
We have known other Pharoahs, we Jews. In the days of the sage, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the mystic saint of Sfat the center of Jewish mysticism who lived in the sixteenth century, a story was told. It seems that a community of Jews lived in a kingdom oppressed by a wicked ruler. He hated the Jews. He wanted to get rid of them, but he needed them.
After years of persecution and oppression, the king finally lost all sensibility. Already pushed to the edge of poverty, the small Jewish community suffered another blow. The king levied a new tax on the Jews. And, if they did not pay, then everyone would be put to the sword. Impossible! The Jews could not possibly raise the tax money. They were doomed.
The elders met and decided to send a delegation to Palestine to seek the help and counsel of the great Rabbi Isaac in Sfat. When they arrived it was the beginning of the Shabbat. Knowing of the piety of the sage, they held back rushing to him for help until the end of the holy day. As darkness fell the next day and the Havdallah was recited, the delegation approached the rabbi. After he heard their sad story, the rabbi took the emissaries to a well. He took a rope and threw one end into the well. The other end he handed to the men and told them to pull.
They tugged at the rope and were amazed to feel a heavy weight at the other end. When they got the rope to the top of the well, they were shocked to see the king, lying upon theroyal bed.
The king looked around in terrified amazement. Where was he? How did he get here? What sorcerer played this trick on him? Then Rabbi Isaac handed the king a dipper filled with holes and commanded him to empty the well before dawn, or he would never be returned to his palace.
“But,” the king complained, “I could not empty the well with this sieve, not even in 1,000 years!”
“Indeed,” replied Rabbi Isaac, “and do you think that your demands upon the Jews were any more reasonable?”
Then and there, the king made a promise to withdraw his decree. He signed a pledge and sealed it with his signet. And in an instant he was whisked back to his palace. The emissaries too, were transported miraculously home.
When the king awoke the next morning, he thought that the events of the last night were nothing more than a very strange dream. He called for the elders of the Jewish community and renewed his demands. But, the Jews showed him the pledge and he realized that it was not a dream.
The king realized his mistake, but only when the pledge was shown to him. He repented for what he had done, but he was lucky, he had the benefit of Rabbi Isaac’s wonder working to prevent him from doing irreparable harm.
Whether we are Pharaohs or kings, or ordinary mortals, ambition can make us unreasonable and seduce us into making impossible demands upon others and upon ourselves. Ambition can make us lose sight of reality, and then, unable to attain what is impossible to attain, life turns to frustration and bitterness.
In our Torah portion, Pharaoh became obsessed with the desire to aggrandize himself by building Pithom and Ramses. He sought to achieve his ends without regard to the welfare of the Jews.
The plagues of the story were designed as a warning to Pharaoh. But his heart was hardened by his own callousness and he persisted in his demands. His obsession led to his own harm, threatened the welfare of his nation, it brought tragedy to his own family, and eventually led to his own destruction in the churning waters of the Red Sea.
Pharaoh was defeated becase he could not live with the real world, he had to project upon reality his own vision of things as he thought they should be, and this led him to demand the impossible of others and even of himself.
The Torah comes to remind us of other Pharaohs as well. I don’t suppose that I would be far off in saying that most, if not all of you have heard the name Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala before. He is a french comedian and has gained notoriety of late for popularizing a physical gesture callled a quenelle. Now, if you are like me, you think that a quenelle is a gastronomic term for a football-shaped foodstuff such as a dollop of sorbet or mashed potato on your plate. But no, this word in reference to Monsieur M’Bala M’Bala is now the third most Googled word on the internet and refers to a gesture made by the controversial comedian who once said he would like to put a quenelle – a rugby-ball-shaped serving of fish or meat paste – up the backside of Zionists.
It seems that M’Bala M’Bala holds that Jews, Zionists and Washington are conspiring to take over the world. According to the BBC, “Dieudonne made the gesture when he headed his own anti-Zionist campaign in the European elections in 2009. French media trace it further back, to one of his performances in 2005. It came to greater prominence in September when two soldiers were photographed appearing to make the gesture outside a Paris synagogue. There are thousands of examples posted online, some at sensitive sites such as the Auschwitz death camp, and Dieudonne fans can be seen repeating it outside his theatre.”
According to reports in Ha’aretz news, the quenelle, described as a reverse Nazi salute, is making the rounds among popular sports figures. In Europe, Nocolas Anelka a famous soccer player was roundly criticized for making the gesture after scoring a goal recently. And here in the US, basketball star Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, has been accused of making the gesture and thus “mainstreaming anti-Semitic hate.” He has since apologized. As for M’Bala M’Bala himself, it seems that he may be tried for racial incitement for the eighth time with the opening of a criminal investigation regarding possible suspicion of incitement to racial hatred after he made a remark hinting it was a shame that a Jewish journalist doing a story on him didn’t end up in a gas chamber.
The question is, does the comedian promote this controversy because he really is a vicious anti-Semite or because he sees it as a means to fame and fortune? Already, the TV station France 24 tells us that he has been working on launching a range of quenelle-related merchandise and in October 2013 his wife registered the quenelle as a trademark with the French National Industrial Property Institute. This might give credence to the notion that he’s only in it for the fame and fortune. Ambition drives his anti-Semitism much as it did for Pharaoh thousands of years ago.
What is true in others we must also be wary of in ourselves. Not just the Pharaohs which oppress and subjugate nations and peoples, not just the pharaohs who attack and exploit, not just the Pharaohs “out there,” but also the Pharaohs within us. Each of us has our own Pharaohs inside of us. The Pharaohs inside of us drive us blindly to achieve something or obtain something or demand something that is impossible.
In business, we strive to succeed, and that is good. But how often we see healthy ambition turn into the blind pursuit of money or position or power for their own sake. It can prevent us from ever appreciating what we have or deriving any real satisfaction from our talents and abilities. It can even destroy us. Blind ambition in the pursuit of success is not much measured by what we have accomplished, rather by what we feel that we have failed to achieve.
In our personal lives, how often do we expect the impossible of those whom we love? How often do we demand proof of affection or loyalty instead of sharing and giving love? Many of us have an ideal of what love should be. In fact, our society has programmed us to believe that true love is a constant state of starry-eyed bliss. If our relationships fall short, or, if our mate doesn’t measure up to our expectations, then it is very easy to end the relationship and look for fulfillment elsewhere. As we all know, this has become all too common today, hasn’t it? But is that what love, what relationships are really about? True love thrives in the world of what is real, not of what is ideal. It is destructive to a relationship to expect it to meet impossible demands.
The Pharaohs within us can be summed up in these words of the poet:
There are days when we seek things for ourselves and measure failure by what we do not gain.
There are days when we exploit nature as if it were a horn of plenty that can never be exhausted.
There are days when we act as if we cared nothing for the rights of others.
It is at those times that we confront the Pharaohs which are in each of us.
The king heeded the warnings of Rabbi Isaac and came to grips with reality. Pharaoh was swallowed up by the sea of his blind ambition. We are all challenged by the warning signs in our own lives. We cannot let ourselves be drawn under by the Pharaohs within us, they can and do destroy us.
Rather, let us heed the warning signs. In a way, we are the king awakening from the dream that was not a dream. May we recognize the realities of life so that we may affirm it.
כן יהי רצון