Over the past few weeks, many of us have been immersed in an ever-escalating drama, one with colorful characters, multiple storylines, and plenty of plot twists and turns. NFL playoffs? Presidential Impeachment hearings? Actually, this steady build-up of tension and dramatic anticipation is provided by the early chapters in the Book of Exodus.
In this week’s parashah, Bo, we find Moses and Pharaoh locked in the final stages of an elaborate struggle for the liberation of the enslaved Israelites. The narrative describes G!D’s application of the final three plagues and its impact on all those involved. (Spoiler Alert: the Israelites are liberated!)
During the eighth plague (an onslaught of locusts) the Torah includes a curious dialogue between Pharaoh and the staff of his royal court:
Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship their G!D! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7)
Up until this point in the narrative, the courtiers’ voices aren’t given much attention. Their primary role is to attend to the needs of their boss, who happens to be an absolute dictator over them and all the people of Egypt. Therefore, it’s unexpected for this group of assumed “yes-men” to be willing to speak up and rebuke their supreme leader. It’s also instructive because it provides us with guidance into dealing with a variety of Pharaohs in our world – those throughout, as well as those within us.
At first, I took this to be an attempt by the courtiers to shift blame for their current predicament (that is, the plagues) away from Pharaoh and onto Moses. Denying responsibility and projecting blame is a familiar pattern throughout history; it is still active among us today. It’s a dynamic that has become ingrained into our worldview and plays out in many of our interactions and relationships, especially when we’re feeling under attack and in the midst of stress and suffering. Thus, it’s understandable to read the courtiers’ statements as an extension of Pharaoh’s own ego-maniacal personality – one always looking to blame others for problems he, himself has created.
However, after further discussions with my colleagues and mentors, I understand how the courtiers’ efforts can also be seen as an attempt to balance the nuanced demands of accepting and speaking truth, “office-politics,” and spiritual leadership. At some point, the courtiers realized that Pharaoh (and they, themselves) were stuck in an incredibly destructive downward spiral. To their credit, they surrendered to this truth and accepted that there was a Power Greater than Themselves in control. However, well aware of Pharaoh’s dictatorial essence, they were also stuck with a limited number of options for impacting their own situation. They were in quite a bind, knowing they were on a sinking ship and being almost totally dependent on a flawed leader.
Traditionally in Jewish law, one is only allowed to rebuke their kinsman if they think their rebuke will be heard. The courtiers’ approach aligns with this, as they carefully chose their words to reflect both the desperation and the hope they had.
A deeper look at their language gives us some perspective about getting ourselves and others unstuck in life. Despite Pharaoh’s continued insistence on making destructive choices, they state their rebuke in the form of a question (rather than a statement): “How long shall this one be a snare to us…” In doing this, they communicate to Pharaoh that their current situation is untenable, yet also affirm they still believe he has the opportunity (and capability) to make healthier, positive choices. Stated in Beit T’Shuvah culture: at the time of this interaction, they still had faith in Pharaoh’s ability to engage in t’shuvah… AND took it upon themselves to lead him to that pathway. Despite the risks, they were calling out to Pharaoh’s soul, giving him the opportunity to take the next right action on behalf of himself and the people.
As unlikely as a source as they may be, these courtiers provide us with a model of spiritual leadership that serves to inspire. Rebuke can be inherently difficult and uncomfortable, especially when further coupled with our fears and sense of vulnerability. Our commitment to speaking truth needs to be further buttressed by a conviction to honor our own and others’ holy souls. When we’re willing to see the holiness in the people around us, and when we speak to them in a way that honors their holy soul, we claim the power that’s available to us and create the pathways that can be a part of the solution.