Date: January 11th 2018


Parshat Shemot (7, 15) has the passuk (sentence): “Go to Pharaoh in the morning, behold, he goes out to the water and you should stand to greet him at the river’s bank; and the staff that was turned into a snake, you should take in your hand. Hashem sent Moshe to warn Pharaoh of the first of the ten plagues. He was told to greet Pharaoh at the Nile where he could be found in the early morning.

The Midrash Rabbah [ibid.] 9, 15) explains why Moshe was instructed to meet Pharaoh there. Pharaoh had promoted the notion that he was a god. One of his “proofs” was from the fact that he was never seen voiding his wastes. Pharaoh’s ruse was to only relieve himself at the Nile very early in the morning when others would not see him. Hashem, therefore, commanded Moshe to accost Pharaoh at the Nile in the morning to demonstrate that he was not a god.

The commentary of the Mharzu on the Midrash (ibid.) elaborates that upon being confronted by Moshe before he could reach the Nile, Pharaoh was compelled to excuse himself so that he could first see to his bodily needs. Moshe then said, “Is there is a god that must void its wastes?”

That Pharaoh attempted to convince others that he was a god is indisputable. What is less evident is whether Pharaoh himself believed the nonsense. Even if Pharaoh accepted that he was human, he might have nevertheless promoted the canard of his godliness. Perhaps he felt that if his subjects thought him a god, they would be more compliant and less likely to revolt. Or else Pharaoh might have simply thirsted for the adulation directed at what his subjects (wrongly) presumed to be a deity.

The commentary of Mharzu, quoting the Yalkut Shimoni elaborates that Moshe was sent to “show him that he is flesh and blood” – to explain to him what the truth really was. The Mharzu apparently understood the Midrash as saying that Pharaoh was not merely convincing others that he was a god. He himself believed it as well. Moshe was therefore sent to disabuse Pharaoh of his folly.

Seemingly, there was no basis for Pharaoh to imagine himself a god. Moshe was able to disprove that falsehood simply by accosting him at the river. Nevertheless, Pharaoh had truly believed his own made-up myth. This demonstrates the extent to which a person can distort his perception of self; he can actually see himself as a deity.

This idea can be developed further. Pharaoh realized that a need to void one’s wastes was proof positive of mortality. He therefore concealed this evidence of his own humanity from others. Amazingly, Pharaoh continued to sincerely believe that he was a god despite his daily personal ritual of concealing the indisputable confirmation that he was human.

This behavior was bizarre. Could it be that Pharaoh acted as he did because he was simply mentally unbalanced?

Regarding this type of question, Rabbi Henach Liebowitz z”l often said that, unless otherwise specified, the responses and interactions recorded in the Torah are all a part of normal human psychology and hence relevant to all Jews of all ages. This is what makes the Torah a timeless blueprint for what people are and what they can and should be. Were this were not true, many of Judaism’s moral/ethical concepts could not be derived from studying the events described in Torah; components of these incidents could be dismissed as being a function of abnormal psychology and hence not necessarily applicable to normal people. If so, the same applies to this example of Pharaoh’s belief that he was a god.

Could one argue: perhaps (within the context of normal psychology) such an acute self-delusion of grandeur is only possible in one who is both evil and all-powerful as Pharaoh was? But it would never be found in one who is ethical, intelligent, well-adjusted - and also not an absolute despot.

To again quote Rabbi Liebowitz: the Torah’s ethical principles apply to all Jews. Were that not so, people could dismiss a Toraic moral principle by saying: “That doesn’t apply to me.” This means that the folly of Pharaoh could theoretically afflict anyone. However far-fetched it may seem, ON SOME LEVEL, any Jew might succumb to harboring a wildly over-inflated perception of his or her own wisdom and holiness – even to the point of seeing one’s self as a deity.

The point should be made that Pharaoh was an extreme - a true believer that he was an actual god. But the same psychodynamic might exist in smaller doses. For example, a person might harbor the feeling that he is superhuman, but in a small and therefore hard to detect measure. But even small doses of poison can be deadly. At times, people face important hard to make decisions that can go either way. One might otherwise be capable of deciding properly. However, a little bit of “Pharaoh-style” self-delusion may tip the scale the wrong way and precipitate a self-destructive conclusion.

This can explain why some people foolishly enter businesses anticipating huge success when there is almost no chance that it will ensue; others with little Torah knowledge confidently opine on major issues of Torah that require enormous scholarship; and so forth. The error might be rooted in more than just foolish or flawed thinking. It might be due to wrongly seeing themselves as supremely wise and capable.

On a more prosaic level, this concept has even wider application. People are always making “small” decisions on what is best or worst for themselves and others. In truth, these judgments often entail unwittingly deciding on profundities of psychology, education, medicine, Torah (lehavdil), and so forth. Consequently, even a slightly exaggerated appraisal of one’s own wisdom can beget a pattern of making seriously misguided decisions every single day.

The same insight applies when dealing with other psychologically “normal” people in matters that touch upon their self-evaluation. One must remember that they might be harboring grandiose misperceptions of themselves that are simply unconnected to reality. Being aware of this possible folly can help one deal successfully with some types of people.

Arrogant self-delusion and its consequences might unwittingly afflict almost anyone. Regarding this peril, a proactive pursuit of personal modesty is probably the best form of self-defense.

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