In this week’s parsha we get to know one of Bnai Yisrael’s arch-enemies, Par’oh, the supreme ruler of Mitzrayim. Not only was he an evil, stubborn and temperamental individual, but Chazal tell us (see Rashi to Shmos, 7:15) that Par’oh fancied himself as a god. And in order to hide the fact that he was nothing more than a regular garden variety homo-sapien with normal bodily functions, he would make daily at-dawn trips to the Nile in order to perform his morning ablutions in secrecy. It is not clear, though, whether he was overcome with delusions of magnificent grandeur, truly believing he was omnipotent, or it was merely a position he took to wield yet more power. Regardless of this uncertainty, it is pretty clear that when confronted with a message from the real Hashem during his first face-to-face with Moshe, where he proclaimed, “Mi Hashem asher eshma bekolo leshalach es Yisrael” – “Who is this Hashem that I should listen to His voice to release the Jews” (Shmos, 5:2), he truly did not know who this Hashem was. As the Midrash (Shmos Rabbah, 5:14) tells us, Par’oh ran to his royal chambers, pulled out his book of gods and thumbed through it looking for an entry for “Hashem” but failed to find one.
Par’oh’s denial, however, is somewhat puzzling. Perusing the mefarshim it would seem that Par’oh was not only familiar with The G-d of the Yidden, but was also au courant with His rules and regulations. For example, the Kli Yakar tells us that Par’oh knew that Hashem had decreed that the Yidden were to be exiled for 400 years, but was worried they might get out earlier because tzaddikim have the power to cancel the decrees of Hashem (Moed Katan 16b). The Yefai Toar (in his commentary on Shmos Rabbah to 1:14) says that Par’oh tried to have the male infants killed by the midwives [rather than do it himself] thinking that he personally would escape punishment by Hashem because of the rule “Ain shliach lidvar avairah” – “there is no legal representative when it comes to sinning” (meaning that if A makes B an official representative to do a sin on A’s behalf, B is going to be punished, not A). So how is it that the same Par’oh who knew many of Hashem’s rules and decrees seemed to have no clue as to the concept of a Hashem?
Perhaps we can say the following: Par’oh was actually very familiar with the G-d of the Yidden. But we know our G-d has two modes; din & rachamim – strict and merciful.. Elokim is His name when He is in the mode of din, and Hashem (yud hai vav hai) when being merciful. Par’oh, being the dastardly despot that he was, could not fathom that a supreme G-d would ever have a mode of mercy. After all, why waste all that power on being nice? Wimps are nice, not gods. He did know that the Bnai Yisrael had an Elokim, but a Hashem, one who is benevolent and wants to take a nation out of slavery and show them some love to boot?! “Impossible” he said, “Mi Hashem asher eshma bekolo..” I know of Elokim, but a Hashem? No, He’s not in my lexicon.
We Torah-true Jews know better than Par’oh. Of course there is a Hashem. That being said, we still have a ways to go in this area. The saintly Klausenberger Rebbe once explained the first passuk of the Shema in the following manner: “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokainu” – “Listen Yidden, we have a Hashem (merciful) and an Elokainu (strict)”. “Hashem echad” – His true essence is Hashem, the G-d of rachamim”. The Rebbe went on to say that in the pea-soup-like spiritual fog of Galus, where Hashem has withdrawn from us, it is more often than not difficult to recognize that His default mode is one of rachamim, but we believe it nonetheless. To show that this is something not readily apparent we cover our eyes during the recitation of this passuk, as if to say we do believe in this tenet even though we may not see it.
Par’oh did end up having his revelation when he witnessed Hashem perform miracles at Yam Suf protecting a nation that He loved, causing him to cry out, “Mi kamocha ba’ailim Hashem” – “Who is like You amongst deities Oh Hashem!” We, too, wait for our revelation of a Geulah allowing us to proclaim Shema with greater conviction.
With our eyes wide open.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.