Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35) Starbucks and Pharaoh

Imagine if you were miraculously given superhuman power and had the ability to confront an evil monarch, someone who has persecuted, oppressed and murdered tens of thousands of people. How would you approach him? Would you address him in a respectful way or would speak in an insulting and degrading fashion? Whether it was Ivan the terrible, Hitler, Stalin, or Ahmadinejad, would you see yourself as the representative giving voice to all those who suffered at the hands of this person by yelling, insulting, and speaking in a degrading manner or would you speak in a calm and respectful manner? A short comment from Rashi on this week’s Torah reading sheds light on this situation.  G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron and commanded them concerning the children of Israel and concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. (6:13)When giving the commandment to speak to Pharaoh, why was he called “the King of Egypt?” There was no way to confuse him-there was no other Pharaoh. This is the monarch who had denigrated and persecuted the Jews. Everyone knew who he was; why mention that he is the King of Egypt? The answer is that Moses and Aaron were being commanded by the Almighty to speak to Pharaoh in a respectful fashion. They were addressing a King; no matter how evil he was, the position requires honor, even if the one occupying that position doesn’t.This idea has obvious ramifications in every generation. Some positions of leadership need to be respected even when the individual occupying them doesn’t. People can disagree on policy or other issues but when we disparage a person who occupies the highest position in the free world, we are doing a disservice to ourselves because we have distorted our sense of honor and dignity for the office itself and, consequently, we are undermining something much greater. An entire country suffers when there is no respect for authority. When children are raised in an environment where they see adults who don’t even have respect for a high-ranking office, and those children don’t yet have the sophistication to make a distinction between the position and the person, they will ultimately conclude that anyone and anything is open game for scorning and belittling.We all have strong positions on certain issues and policies but that shouldn’t affect how we relate to the dignity we give to the office. When Starbucks founder and Chairman Howard Schultz was considering being a contender for the Democratic nomination for President, he was interviewed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (January 30, 2019). Co-host Mika Brzezinski asked Schultz to name his favorite Republican president from the last 50 years. Schultz responded with an anecdote about President Ronald Reagan. “I have great respect for Ronald Reagan. I just came from the Ronald Reagan Library. The thing that I took away about Ronald Reagan, aside from all the wonderful things that he did, that really struck me [is that] …Ronald Reagan never took his jacket off in the Oval Office in eight years. Why? Because of his respect for the dignity of the office.”In ancient Egypt, Moses and Aaron had a teaching moment. G-d told them, this man and his people have caused your people to suffer as slaves for hundreds of years and he is now embarking on a genocide that demands the murder of every Jewish male baby. It doesn’t get more evil than this, yet, they are told to address this revolting leader as Pharaoh, King of Egypt-Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister. Why did this lowlife deserve the honor?If we live in a world where we become so casual and dismissive that we lack awe and reverence for human authority, then we cannot possibly have awe, reverence, and respect for G-d’s authority. This slippery slope begins with our speech and behavior, and how we interact on a daily basis, especially with those with whom we disagree. Basic Jewish belief is that G-d exists; there is a Supreme Being for whom we need to be reverent and grateful. When we lose a feeling for human authority, we will not be able to feel it for the Almighty. G-d instructs Moses to be respectful toward the wicked Pharaoh because when one loses the ability to maintain respect for the seat or office of authority, one will ultimately lose the ability to be reverent for other things also, most importantly G-d.After I began writing this a few days ago, I came across a comment from John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, about the current impeachment hearings.”I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body. Those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.”We can understand why Moses, when he approached the Burning Bush, was told to remove his shoes; reverence was crucial when we consider where he was and to Whom he was speaking. But perhaps an even greater lesson was his being told to be respectful to an evil head of state because, after all, he (Pharaoh) occupied a position that demanded respect even though he personally didn’t. When one loses the ability to be reverent, (s)he has lost far more than that. Good Shabbos
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center