As we look at current events we can’t help but be seriously concerned with the elevated tone in the country. Over the past few months, we have witnessed the collapse of societal norms, where rioting has become the normal way of protesting, to the point where the Capitol building itself was compromised.
While our elected officials – Democrat and Republican – all want to bring people together, they are often held back by personal political aspirations and stubbornness that slows down the process of governing and serving their constituents. As the world struggles for clarity, we embrace the direction of our Rabbonim and Torah to offer us a template for our actions and beliefs. The Torah indeed warns us of an often-overlooked axiom that states, “Hakinoh hataavoh vehakovod motziin es ho’odom min ho’olom – Jealousy, lust, and honor can remove us from this world.”
Rabbi Berel Wein discusses stubbornness in an article on the parshah, showing us that this trait dates way back to Pharaoh.
- Stubbornness can be a virtue or a terrible character defect. When it is a virtue, we call it tenacity. When it is a defect it is just plain foolish and counterproductive. Pharaoh’s stubbornness, as exhibited in this week’s parshah, is an example. His advisers inform him that Egypt is headed for disaster because of his stubbornness, but he refuses to give in to the reality of the series of plagues that threatens to decimate Egyptian society.
Of course, the Torah tells us that his tenacity was reinforced by the fact that G-d hardened his heart. The commentators, especially Maimonides, judge that to mean that Hashem gave him the courage of his convictions not to be influenced by the events transpiring in his country but to continue his evil path to enslave the Jewish people.
Hardening his heart did not influence Pharaoh’s choices in the matter. It merely allowed him to transform what previously appeared to be tenacity into ultimate foolishness and disaster. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other such leaders displayed this same reckless stubbornness over the past century, resulting in the destruction of societies and the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Because of his behavior, Pharaoh becomes the paradigm for the self-destructive trait of foolish stubbornness. The Jewish people are also characterized as being a stubborn people. This trait has served us well when we were and are tenacious in preserving our values and traditions. It is a foolish trait when we continue the policies and misbegotten certainties that have always led to our tragedies and misfortunes.
Rashi and Midrash teach us the source of Pharaoh’s suicidal stubbornness. It lay in his belief in himself as a god – arrogant and convinced of his own infallibility. People who are never wrong never have to change their policies, beliefs, or behavior.
I am reminded of a sign that I once saw on the desk of a prominent public figure that said: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up!” He was joking about it (I think) but that danger lurks in all of us. Once we are convinced of the absolute rectitude of our position, we not only are tenacious in maintaining it, we become downright blindly stubborn.
Moshe meets Pharaoh at the river’s edge, where he went to perform his bodily functions. Pharaoh is exposed there – not as a god but only as a mortal man. Moshe means to teach Pharaoh that the justification for his stubbornness – his sham sense of infallibility – is itself false. A little humility on the part of Pharaoh would have saved himself and Egypt a great deal of grief. That is why the Torah stresses that the desired quality for true leadership is humility.
Moshe becomes the paradigm for humility just as Pharaoh – his arch-nemesis – is the paradigm for arrogant stubbornness. This lesson of wise tenacity versus foolish stubbornness exists in all areas of human life and society – family, community, national policy, and personal development. May we be tenacious enough in life to avoid foolish moments of harmful stubbornness.
We thank President Trump for all his accomplishments, and at the same time congratulate our own RI Governor, Gina Raimondo, on her appointment in the new government as Secretary of Commerce. We look forward to working with our newly elected officials for the betterment of our society.
Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman