If Pharaoh Was My Rebbe

If Pharaoh Was My Rebbe

Pharaoh calls his Torah the Torah of freedom.

If Pharaoh was my rebbe, G-d forbid, he’d say I was perfect just the way I am. I should not be passive or quell the dissatisfaction or the rage or greet each thing with stoic equanimity. That is not “freedom.” The true freedom is to bellow and rally against all restraints because they are not to our taste. As long as we are the masters of our destiny, we have his blessing. Pharaoh is the rebbe of all self-made men.

If Pharaoh was a rebbe (and we trapped forever), he would remind every Jewish boy and girl that they are kings and queens, empowered rulers over their own lives. He wouldn’t just say it; he would make it so: he would order his sorcerors to render unto the flock the secrets of dominion over nature. “Go out and embrace the world,” he would encourage. “And if the world needs remaking, do not hesitate.”

He does not demand wholehearted devotion from his followers. He is far more reasonable. “You are in control,” he tells them on the first day they arrive to build the cities that will guard the borders of their prison. “You decide, just like me.” Pharaoh is a man of the people, and the first day you meet him, you’ll find him in working-class denim, hard hat on, ready to set to the task. It is impossible, you are reassured, to become a slave when you are in control.

Pharaoh encourages all forms of expression. Words are the concretization of thought, and Pharaoh loves concrete as he loves brick and mortar; these are the media from which pyramids and cities and tombs are formed. When the idea hasn’t yet been put into words, it’s still personal and ephemeral and shifts in the light. The concept without words is alive like we are alive, like our skin is alive, an external interface of our soul with the world. But since it is just us, it can’t change the world; it is trapped within our soul.

“This is selfish,” says Pharaoh, with a twinkle in his eye. “We must free the world!” Pharaoh hates entrapment and demands freedom. His Torah says no idea of yours is undeserving of expression; no thought should remain naked, without a theory. Pharaoh adores theories. In the system of thought, we manifest and concretize our souls and leave monuments to eternity that explorers shall excavate millennia hence!

Do not, Pharaoh reassures us, worry at the way the walls close in. Do not fret that the cities we have chosen to build with our own hands mark where we cannot pass. Ignore the discomfort of living within the skin we have shed, dwelling within childhood towns that are now too small for us. Ignore the distinction between the living and the dead.

Pharaoh’s organization promotes from within. Those elder “Chassidim” (and he ages them quickly) deep in Pharaoh’s service thrive among the theories of Judaism they have pronounced. Inside the systems they have built with their own hands, they live like kings. Pharaoh is the king of kings, he teaches. He ensures that nothing upsets his followers’ kingdoms.

That they’re never allowed to taste the taste of matza.

Matza, lowly and broken, tastes of tastelessness, of humility and miracles and faith. “Miracles are hubris,” Pharaoh warns us. “They break down the cities you chose to build! And what will you be when the cities are gone? Certainly no king.”

Thus humility, therefore faith. For what is faith if not the inner point of divestment where all we know is known only by knowing ourselves? Faith is where ideas cannot slough off to become prisons because our thoughts are us, and we cannot imprison ourselves. Faith is where you can’t hide from the truth because the truth is all there is.

Passover reveals the subtle truth of Pharaoh’s machination. He offers freedom and choice and, in the end, brings us only to apathy, depression, and death.

Apathy, for what cares the king of a petty kingdom whose stability is outsourced to Pharaoh about what occurs beyond his borders? Depression, for there is no self-definition outside of the realm we have, with Pharaoh’s encouragement, chosen to build. Though we nominally manipulate stones, we would be nothing without them, so why try? And death, for if we can’t see beyond our words/theories/definitions, and we are nothing without them, we are not really here at all; only the walls of brick are here, the draft stirring the dust across their faces for eternity.

Pharaoh enjoys the entire Jewish year until the Spring, where things go to be reborn. He is uneasy with the supposed humility and miracles and faith. Pharaoh declares that every act of becoming must occur step by step, a chain traceable back to what you once were. He cannot conscience the leaping.

“Judaism isn’t like that fairy tale,” he claims. “Judaism is just like me. Look at the rules and regulations. Look at the controls on your behavior. By choosing ‘freedom,’ you, too, will find yourself controlled!” If Pharaoh was a rebbe, the commandments and the Torah describing them would remain some kind of system, some sort of theory. You would never hear another side to the story, a side that threatened to knock over the blocks. You would never hear that G-d does not manipulate external criteria to make them fit because He is G-d and doesn’t have to. You would never learn that the entire Egyptian exile existed to contextualize the giving of the Torah as a breaking free of the finite bonds of our own choices.

Pharaoh will never teach you that Judaism is wrapping a Jew’s arm in Tefillin or giving them Shabbos candles. He will never admit that the Torah is just what it is, with no shed skin, no shell of dead theories. He will never know, for it lies on the opposite side of the sea that drowned his army, that the Torah is no palace of bricks in which the Jew is king. That the Torah is a truth offered to take or leave, and it is taken by leaving oneself behind, in doing and then listening.

Pharaoh had no inkling of the nation that would survive for millennia alongside his buried tomb and the ruins. The palaces were broken, and the people, humble, joyous, and faithful, let free. They taste the tasteless matza and are reborn.