The Pharaoh Syndrome - The Jewish Voice
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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Pharaoh Syndrome

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People knock pop psychologists and their euphemisms, but I often wonder if we wouldn’t be better off borrowing some of their political correctness when dealing with Torah issues.

The four sons, for example, might be better understood as the Gifted Child, the Difficult Child, the Well-Balanced Child and the Inquisitively Challenged Child.

“The Desecrators of the Holy Shabbat” might be more inclined towards meaningful dialogue if we modified our terminology to the Sabbatically Challenged.

Switching to “the Chassidically Challenged” could end much inter-sectarian strife, since it lands us all somewhere along the same spectrum. “The Halachically Challenged” may also be helpful for much the same reason.

There are also some major aspects of the Exodus story that could be better understood if we would just apply the right nomenclature.

Take the Red Sea event that occurred on the seventh day of Passover. It’s difficult to understand Pharaoh when you consider matters superficially. He sees an entire nation led by a pillar of fire over a dry bed between two pillars of water that stand as stone walls, yet like a madman rushes in with his entire army. And it wasn’t like he had no precedent to learn from.

One might be tempted to describe Pharaoh in this situation as a little lacking up there, to be polite. But here is a case where one of those pc terminologies comes in useful. You see, Pharaoh was actually quite intellectually capable. It was just that he was monotheistically challenged.

To be more specific, Pharaoh belonged to a subset of the monotheistically challenged that have a fixation with a perceived natural order. It’s called “Ma’at” in Ancient Egyptian. Similar to the Buddhist concept of kharma. In modernese, “deterministic, materialist reductionism”—which some people still believe physics is all about.

The pathology works like this: When a conflict arises between the natural order and perceived reality (i.e. a miracle), the subject experiences anxiety. Whereas this anxiety could be easily resolved through the assumption of an Omnipotent Force behind and beyond nature, our subject prefers to simply ignore the obvious reality before his eyes in favor for the world-concept of natural order that he has previously integrated into his perception and personality.

This has been known to result in violent death by drowning under the crashing waves of the Red Sea.

We’re All Somewhere on the Spectrum

As you can immediately recognize, now that I’ve provided a more sympathetic view of Pharaoh’s personal difficulties, he becomes so much easier to relate to. After all, we all do the same thing all the time. It’s called “worry”.

Worry is a state where we ignore the obvious, perceived reality in favor of a warped, unsubstantiated view of how we imagine the natural order to be. We imagine our life as a struggle between our own competency and the laws of physics, commerce and social acceptance. And if that were the true reality, we really would have a lot to worry about.

The obvious reality is that our daily life is full of miracles straight from Above. We have very little control over where we end up and what we have to do there.

Physics doesn’t have much say, either. That’s just the mode of transport. We only need to do our best with whatever we are given and have confidence in the Director Of It All that He knows what He’s doing. And if we mess up, say sorry, have confidence that He’s good and cares for us, and get on with things.

But instead, we worry.

Why do we worry? Because we don’t perceive the miracles. Why don’t we perceive the miracles? Because we see this natural order going on all around us, and if there is a natural order, then miracles could not have happened, right? After all, don’t miracles mean that nature’s laws are temporarily trashed, that life becomes totally weird, and G‑d’s voice is heard bellowing, “Tzvi Freeman, take note! This is a miracle!”?

Wrong. That’s just the Pharaoh inside us all over again. Perhaps somewhat more subtle, but Pharaoh nonetheless.

Monotheism means believing that the natural order is not an absolute set of rules to either play by or break by. Believing there is One Infinite Force behind all things means acknowledging that He can be found doing His thing anywhere—by the rules or not by the rules. Nothing stops Him from getting His way—no supervising committee, no appeal board, no shareholders, no mother-in-law. Not even The Natural Order.

That’s just a façade. It’s really all just Him.

The prognosis? According to the prophets, we eventually grow out of this.

That’s what the prophet Micah was hinting at when he said, “As the days when you left Egypt, so I will make you see miracles.” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch explained, “As the days when you pointed at the Red Sea splitting and said, ‘This is my G‑d doing this!’ —so then, in those times when we will leave this exile, I will let you see the even more wondrous miracles that are happening right now every day in your daily life.”

We can open our minds and try to start seeing reality that way right now. And stop worrying.

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