By Rabbi Ariel Abel
In recent weeks, a reader asked me to retract any mention I have made in my sedra columns of any flaws in the person or personalities of Biblical figures. Unfortunately I am unable to do so, as I would be lying about the Scripture itself and its plain meaning.
A short view into this weekly section may not be enough to appreciate the verse for what it stands. I shall demonstrate the importance of moral failings through a character who is popularly subject to criticism – Pharaoh – and then explain why even the saintliest of men and women are not spared criticism, and why we should not whitewash over faults mentioned about them in Scripture.
The seventh of the ten plagues was loud peals of thunder, fiery lightning strikes and hailstones which crushed the ripe grain.
That was enough for Pharaoh to declare that God was righteous and that he and his people were “the evil ones”. However, the Almighty was not pacified by this declaration.
Words are too easy to utter: it is in action that He wishes to see a change of heart. In this week’s reading, Pharaoh is on record as sending the people out of Egypt, but he then gives chase to the Israelites and only meets his end drowning in the sea.
Is the Pharaoh of the exodus therefore an irredeemable baddie whom we can consign to the trash heap of history? Certainly not. My teacher Tuvia Kiel points out the prophet Isaiah in chapter 19 prophesies that Egypt will eventually repent of their idolatry, serve God, speak Hebrew and earn the title of a “blessed nation”.
This means that God cares about the repentance of even of a condemned nation: in repentance lies true greatness.
As the book of Jonah also teaches, there is no virtue in zealotry, only repentance. When the Torah points out the faults of our leaders and ancestors, whitewashing over them is precisely to deny them the greatness which they truly earned though improving their morality, which remains as an instructive example for eternity.
This week’s reading also contains the Song of Moses and Miriam’s refrain. There is no action which is complete in religion if it is not complemented by female energy. All the male children were birthed by the midwives.
Additionally, the Midrash states that the women encouraged their enslaved husbands tirelessly. The Midrash therefore announces that it was the merit of women that our ancestors survived Egyptian slavery, and our future redemption relies upon their merit too.