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O The Humanity – Moshe’s Prayers for Pharaoh

January 13, 2016

As many of you know, my family and I spent winter break with my father and sister at Disney World. It was an amazing trip and we had so much fun. While there, waiting on one of the many lines that we stood on to meet a character or go on a ride it occurred to me how a Disney vacation truly is an escape from reality. Forget about the wars being fought in the world, problems of poverty or inequality. All that mattered was which Disney princess were we going to meet next, and how long is the ride for the nearest roller coaster. This was literally all I thought about for an entire week.

Real life, of course, is much more complicated. This week’s parsha highlights one of those complicated, real life issues that is way too complex for the simplistic, happy Disney world experience.

As the drama of the makot (ten plagues) unfold and we read of the first seven this week, there are three times when Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aaron and begs them to make the plague stop. It is too much for Pharaoh to bear and he asks Moshe to Hashem pray on his behalf in order to stop his suffering.

The first time this occurs is after מכת צפרדע, the plague of frogs.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־ה’ וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לה’

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: ‘Entreat the LORD, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice unto the LORD.’ (Shemot 8:4)

Pharaoh makes a similar request during the plague of ערוב (wild beasts). He is on the brink of agreeing to allow B’nei Yisrael to go to worship Hashem for three days and says to Moshe:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי.

And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me. (Shemot 8:24)

Finally, at the end of the parsha during ברד (hail):

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם ה’ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃ הַעְתִּ֙ירוּ֙ אֶל־יהק וְרַ֕ב מִֽהְיֹ֛ת קֹלֹ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּבָרָ֑ד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לַעֲמֹֽד׃

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9:27-28)

The commentators tell us that Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh were sincere, and difficult for Moshe to utter.

On his prayer during tzfardeah, the Torah records: וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה’ עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. – he cried unto the Lord concerning the frogs He had wrought on Pharaoh (Shemot 8:8). The Da’at Mikra contemporary commentary explains that the verb צעק cry out/scream implies that Moshe cried out loudly as if he were crying   in distress and despair.

ויצעק משמע שמלל בקול גדול כצועק מתוך צרה ומצוקה.

Concerning the prayer offered during Arov, Rashi writes:

ויעתר אל ה’ – נתאמץ בתפילה וכן אם בא לומ’ ויעתיר היה יכול לומ’ ומשמע וְיַרְבה תפילה, וכשהו’ אומ’ בלשון ויפעל משמ’ וַיִרְבֵה להתפלל.

and entreated the Lord: he exerted himself in prayer. Similarly, if [Scripture] meant to say וַיַעְתִּיר, it could have said it, and that would mean that he increased [words] in prayer. Now, however, because it uses the וַיִפְעַל form, it means that he exerted himself to pray [devoutly].

Moshe exerted great effort in praying for Pharaoh.

And finally, at the end of our parsha during barad, Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa in Israel writes in his book on the parsha Yoducha Ra’ayonai:

משה נכון היה לשאת תפלה בעד האויב המשעבד את עמו. על אף המציאות הסבוכה מצליח משה להפלל מעומק לבו ולעורר את רחמי הקל על סבלות העם המצרי.

Moshe was correct to offer prayer on behalf of the enemy who was subjugating [Moshe’s] people. Despite the complicated reality, Moshe succeeds to pray from the depths of his heart and to arouse God’s compassion over the suffering of the Egyptian nation.

Why does Moshe go to such lengths to pray for Pharaoh and the Egyptian people? Surely Moshe’s behavior goes beyond what we would expect.

To answer this I’d like to return to an episode from Sefer Breishit. On Rosh Hashanah we spoke about the plight of Yishmael and his mother Hagar ( Hagar is kicked out of Avraham and Sarah’s house twice. Once on her own and once with her son Yishmael. On the second occasion, both mother and child are on the brink of death with no food or water to be found. Hagar abandons Yishmael, too pained to see her son suffer. This story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael immediately precedes the story of Avraham and Yitzchak ascending Har haMoriah for Akedat Yitzchak.

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contrasts these two episodes:

“We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham and Isaac. The latter is a religious drama, the former a human one, and its very humanity gives it power.” (115)

Despite the fact that Yitzchak is the favored son and chosen successor of Avraham, we more easily identify with Yishmael. The Torah deliberately does not vilify him, and wants us to empathize with him. Rabbi Sacks continues:

In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal. It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging. At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Isaac. She is the he first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child. But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael. We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathize with their emotions. That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy. We weep with them, feeling their outcast state. As does God. (117-118)

One of the Torah’s fundamental lessons is to empathize and identify with the other, even with our enemy. To bring this back to our parsha, when Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jews go, Hashem insists that the Jews not leave empty-handed. They should leave ברכוש גדול – with great wealth. The simplest explanation is that the Jews are instructed to demand payment for the hundreds of years of servitude. But not all agree that the רכוש גדול refers to material wealth, or only material wealth.

Rav Yehuda Amital a”h quotes the Ari z”l who explains that God wanted the Jewish people to take with them the positive aspects of Egyptian culture and to integrate them, to “raise the sparks.” ( Despite the oppression to which the Egyptians subjected us, there were still positive elements of Egyptian culture and society. On our own, we would not have taken anything from Egypt. It would have been a terrible nightmare that we wished to put far behind us. To erase all memories. Therefore, God pleaded with Moshe to make sure that the people would take the good aspects of Egypt with them.

Along similar lines, in explaining Hashem’s command to take riches from the Egyptians, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to a Halacha recorded in Sefer Devarim: When a Jewish slave is set free, his master is obligated to provide him with wealth on his departure (Devarim 15:12-15). Rabbi Sacks explains that this gift is not meant to be compensation for the years spent in slavery. Rather, the gift is meant to provide closure of this chapter in the slave’s life and allow for the parting to be in good will. The slave does not leave his master bearing bad feelings or with feelings of humiliation. Rather, the gifts are symbolic of a new beginning. This is the same idea behind Hashem’s insistence that B’nei Yisrael take money and riches from the Egyptians. If we did not take a symbolic parting gift we would bear resentment and ill-will toward the Egyptians for the rest of our national history. We would be a people stuck in the past. We must let go of whatever animosity we have in order to realize our national destiny. (

This idea of empathizing with the enemy is at the forefront of a contentious debate in Israel. During the latest streak of terrorism and stabbing attacks, one question that has emerged and that is truly dividing Israeli society is how to treat with the terrorists and perpetrators of these attacks once the immediate threat has been stopped.

The Israeli Medical Association, and the medical community has adopted guidelines that once the terrorist is no longer a threat, that all people on the scene – whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jew or non-Jew, terrorist or victim – should be treated in order of severity. Those who are most critically wounded should be treated first. ZAKA, the volunteer emergency service organization has refused to accept these guidelines. Yehoshua Meshi-Zahav, the founder and chairman of ZAKA has stated that ZAKA volunteers will treat Jewish victims first.

“In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries,” Meshi-Zahav added. “If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says, ‘He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.’” ( (For a different perspective on this question, see the article written by my friend Rabbi Seth Winberg

I certainly understand this position and relate with Meshi-Zahav’s sentiments. I do not know what the right answer is in this situation.

What is clear, is that Judaism demands of us that we follow in the tradition of Moshe who prayed on behalf of Pharaoh. That despite the harshness of our enslavement in Egypt, we must be able to see the positives of that oppressive society and leave open the possibility of reconciliation. We must be able to see the humanity and to empathize with human suffering, even that of our enemies.


From → Israel, Parsha

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