Tonight, when we are all gathered around the table and telling about the Exodus, let us pay attention to Pharaoh, whose story is the story of the folly and shortsightedness of rulers. So much attention has been devoted to the leadership of Moses, who was one of a kind, that the leadership of Pharaoh, who was one of many like him, is shunted aside. Did the scriptures intend to compare two types of leaders so that those who are led would see? We hereby recommend reading the Haggadah this evening as a present-day text.
If the leadership of Moses was based on a great vision of saving a nation from its oppressors, the leadership of Pharaoh was based on a petty accounting of how to profit from the enslavement of another nation.
The Egyptians embitter the lives of the Israelites with hard work, and force them to build Pithom and Ramses. Imperial history has always built treasure-cities, which immediately surround themselves with a security fence for defending against the fury of the forced and overworked laborers.
Moses opens his national and personal march toward freedom with an attack. He strikes an Egyptian man from the civil administration or the border police who is beating a Hebrew, and inters his body in the sand. Moses flees to the land of Midian, and from that moment he's a wanted man.
From the time the uprising erupts, it becomes clear the king is an idiot, and not much time will pass until the slaves go free in spite of him. He conducts a losing battle and trips on every bump on the road. When Moses and Aaron come to him for the first time, urging him to let their people go, he dismisses the two authoritatively: "Get you to your burdens." The king is still certain that if he only makes things hard for the Hebrews, they will prefer survival and a livelihood over sacrifice and redemption. From now on, he won't even give them straw for the bricks.
God is familiar with these foolish types who have no idea where they and their subjects are living. The more he hardens their hearts, the blinder they become. The 10 plagues begin to land on Pharaoh one after the other, but he refuses to be impressed. Blood floods the entire land of Egypt, Pharaoh and his magicians swallow frogs, the lice suck the marrow of man and beast, and the king does not give in. He does not agree to allow the Israelites to leave. As soon as the threat of one plague is removed, Pharaoh immediately refuses once again. He still does not understand that the next plague will be more lethal.
Only when Egypt fills up with wild animals does Pharaoh begin to sober up, but there is still a long way to go. And before the landing of the locusts, protest demonstrations begin. The citizens of Egypt want the affair to end. "How long?" they ask. "Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?"
Like his fellow rulers, Pharaoh knows how to count demonstrators and to read surveys. He offers additional gestures: The men will leave, but without the children. And when the plague of darkness falls he offers another concession: "Let your little ones also go with you," but without the flocks and cattle. When Moses and Aaron reject this offer too, the king gets furious, stops the negotiations and threatens to prevent them from leaving: "See my face no more, for on the day you see my face you shall die."
And then the last and terrible plague strikes, the plague of the first born. "And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead." And what common sense failed to achieve was achieved by bereavement.
Only now, after a fateful delay, does the king agree to a general exodus from Egypt - men, children, flocks and cattle. Up to the bitter end those blind rulers will never understand that anger is not appeased with miserly concessions and stingy gestures, and that national aspirations for independence cannot be destroyed.
And even at the last moment, when the tortured nation was already on the way to its independence, the enslavers change their minds and chase the new situation as though the wheel of history could be turned back. Then the sea sweeps over them, and they plummet like lead in the mighty waters.
What is left to us when we don't read the story of the Exodus properly? We are left with a belly full of matza balls and with "Pour out thy wrath."