This week’s Torah portion lands us in the middle of a war between the God of the universe and the false deity, Pharaoh. Having enslaved the Jewish people, Pharaoh seeks to destroy their spirit by exhausting their bodies. Seeking a total control over their hearts and soul, the idolatry that Pharaoh seeks to impose comes at a very high cost indeed: His insistence that true power is ruthless, that supremacy is something to be imposed continues to rear its ugly head, continues to assault the biblical tradition and those who love it. No mere relic from antiquity, our century has more than its share of those who believed that their lofty visions could justify any cruelty they needed to inflict, in order to cement their hold on power.
The alternative, to suggest that true power must be wedded to kindness, that abiding strength is one that offers solidarity and nurturance, risks making one look weak. Now, as in the past, those whose convictions impel them to reach out to the outcast and the despised are themselves cast out with scorn. Then, as now, Pharaoh knew that cultivated ruthlessness would please the “realists” of the court and would instill fear and obedience in the hearts of the people.
Pity poor Moses who had to stand up, not merely against this particular Pharaoh, but against the kind of heartless, self-serving power that this Pharaoh (and all Pharaohs of every age) embodies. Moses could rely on no armies to enforce his edicts, no chariots to defend his people. Instead, in seeking the liberation of the slaves, all Moses could utilize were his stirring words, and the power of an idea so pure that it has reshaped the world: “Let my people go!” Over and over, Moses repeated this incantation of freedom to the Egyptian king, confronting the Pharaoh with a witness to power that is based on the dignity of each human being and the holiness of the all living things.
Compassion was not very persuasive in Pharaoh’s court, just as it is pretty unpersuasive in the court of public opinion. Yet compassion is at the very core of Moses’ mission: To fashion a sacred and just community in the service of God.
When words failed, Moses turned to a more conventional sort of persuasion, unleashing the plagues that afflicted Pharaoh and his courtiers and eventually resulted in the liberation of the Israelite slaves. Yet even within that display of a clearly intimidating and coercive power, God continues to display a caring and a concern for humanity and for creation.
God tells Moses to appear before Pharaoh, and to relate that “I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Therefore, order your livestock and everything you have in the open brought under shelter; every man and beast that is found outside, not having been brought indoors, shall perish when the hail comes down upon them!”
Even in God’s rage that Pharaoh still refuses to free the Jews, even at the very height of this divine display of power against the evil king, God still seeks to protect the innocent and to care for the animals. As the Rabbis of the ancient midrash Sh'mot Rabbah comment, “See the extent of God’s compassion; even in a moment of anger, God has compassion on the wicked and on animals.”
True, there are occasions when compassion alone will not suffice. There are times when refusing to combat evil is to accede to it. Such a conflict motivated God to strike against Pharaoh and his legions. Yet even in such a conflict, part of the victory emerges from being able to retain what is distinctive, and moral, and better. To completely abandon compassion would be to become just a bigger Pharaoh. Rather than a victory, such an alteration would have been a loss.
God bests Pharaoh while insisting on the expression of compassion. Those Egyptians who were willing to break with Pharaoh’s cruelty and self-interest, who were willing to see the humanity of their Israelite slaves and the holiness of Israel’s God were deserving of God’s protection and love.
In our day too, that distinction needs to be reiterated time and time again. Compassion need not entail weakness, nor does empathy for the downtrodden involve abandonment of traditional values.
From the time that Moses stepped into Pharaoh’s court, compassion has been a traditional value, and care for the suffering a biblical mandate.