Let My People Know

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “The wicked characters in the Torah are no less – and perhaps even more – fascinating than the righteous ones.”

One of the basic questions about Pharaoh’s character is why, after suffering blow after blow, does he not respond?

Granted, the Torah states that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 9:12); still, this raises the question of what underlies this whole situation.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to say that he respects Pharaoh.

Here was a man who was struck by the plagues of Egypt and nevertheless stubbornly upheld his principles.

This characterization not only explains the question of Pharaoh’s surprising behavior, but sheds light generally on many of the other antagonists in the Torah as well.

In the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, certainly we would like to feel that we are on the side of Moses, but the truth is that most people would probably relate more to Pharaoh.

Moses and Aaron are lofty characters who are in direct contact with God, whereas Pharaoh, in terms of his personality, is more or less an ordinary human being.

To be sure, not everyone is capable of decreeing, as he did, “Every boy who is born you shall throw into the Nile” (Ex. 1:22), or of opposing God so stubbornly.

Nevertheless, in terms of a persons basic inner tendencies, Pharaohs decisions seem eminently understandable.

In this respect, the wicked characters in the Torah are no less – and perhaps even more – fascinating than the righteous ones.

When we study the wicked characters, we can understand them much more fully than we can understand the tzaddikim.

It may be that some who study the Bible feel as if they can relate to the prophets, but there is a big difference between feeling this way and fully comprehending what prophecy entails.

In the case of the wicked, it is undoubtedly easier for us to understand the entirety of what motivates such a personality.

Hence, Pharaoh’s character and essential nature are much more significant for us, and it is important to try to understand his mode of conduct and his responses.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz