Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Challenges to Faith: the Pharaoh Syndrome[1]

Faith stands at the core of the entirety of religious devotion. Rambam begins his Mishne Torah (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1) with the unequivocal declaration: "the foundation of foundations and pillar of all wisdoms is to know that there exists an Original Existence who is the cause of all existence."  The process of the Exodus and the attendant transcendence of all of the rules of the natural order demonstrated clearly the existence and presence of the Master Builder and Orchestrator of the world and its history. This planted forever within the Jewish people and at least temporarily in the Egyptian nation a core source of belief in G-d. (See Ramban's crucial remarks at the end of his commentary to Parashat Bo.) Moshe's confrontation with Pharaoh -  besides its immediate purpose of securing the Jewish nation's freedom - serves as a dramatic example of a non-believer or idol worshiper eventually being forced to admit the truth of "G-d is righteous and I and my nation are wicked" (Va'Eira 9:27).

We can learn important lessons from Pharaoh's conduct and initial denial of G-d as to how we confront and sometimes even invent challenges to faith in our lives. After the plague of frogs befalls Egypt, Moshe Rabbeinu requests of Pharaoh to indicate when he wishes the plague to stop. Pharaoh replies, "tomorrow!" Indeed, after Moshe's entreaty to G-d, the plague ceases exactly at the time requested (Va'Eira 8:5 ff.). Ramban - commenting on the bizarre request of Pharaoh to delay the cessation of this catastrophic plague and subject himself and his nation to another day of pain and suffering - quotes R. Shmuel b. Chafni that Pharaoh wanted to "call Moshe's bluff" thinking that the "magic" Moshe caused was about to "wear off" anyway and Moshe, thinking that Pharaoh would naturally request an immediate cessation, would be able to claim Divine intervention once again. Therefore, Pharaoh requested that the plague stop the next day thinking that the plague would stop immediately thus disproving Moshe's claim. Of course, Pharaoh was proven wrong.  At first glance, Pharaoh's logic seems flawed. The best sorcerers of Egypt indeed had succeeded in bringing up frogs from the Nile as well but, compared to the Plague of Frogs, their action was very limited in scope. The Land of Egypt was reeling from this enormous attack unparalleled in the annals of ancient sorcery indicating a Higher Power at work and yet Pharaoh is willing to dismiss this straightforward implication if the "deadline" for the removal of the frogs would not be matched exactly!

A similar issue arises concerning the grand finale of the Plagues, Makkat B'chorot, the Plague of the Firstborn. Hashem states to Moshe that precisely at midnight all the firstborn would be smitten. When Moshe warns Pharaoh concerning this impending disaster, he slightly modifies the Divine wording to "kaChatzot HaLay'la" which can be translated as "approximately at midnight" (Bo 1:4 and Rashi ibid.). Once again, Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, explains that Hashem knows the time of midnight to the second but the Egyptian "clocks" might be slightly incorrect. On their "clocks" the plague might hit a moment before or after midnight, and this might lead to a dismissal of the effect of the Plague and the authenticity of Moshe. How bizarre! At precisely the same second all the firstborn die throughout the entire land defying all the rules of natural death, and the Egyptians might claim that this was just a "coincidence" or magic?!

Malbim points out yet a third example of this second-guessing of the implications of the plagues. Concerning the plague of Dever, pestilence, the verse states "and from the cattle of the Sons of Israel not one died" (9:6).  Subsequently, Pharaoh sends agents to verify this and discovers that "behold [lit.] until one (Heb. ‘ad echad') of the cattle of Israel did not die" (ibid. 9:7). Noting the Midrashic interpretation elsewhere (B'shalach 14:28) of the phrase "'ad echad" to mean up until but not including one, Malbim suggests that Pharaoh indeed discovered that a solitary animal of the Jews did die during the Pestilence Plague. In a novel interpretation, Malbim suggests that this was the animal of the son of Shlomit bat Divri (see end of Emor) who had an Egyptian father, and before the Giving of the Torah he had the status of a non-Jew and hence his cattle perished. [After the Giving of the Torah, Jewish status would be determined by the mother.] This explains Pharaoh's subsequent reaction: "and Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not free the nation" (ibid.). Once again, a very curious reaction, the cattle of Egypt had been decimated, the Jewish cattle had been spared. The fact that one animal - seemingly Jewish owned - did perish was enough to undo the entire plague's effect!

What emerges from all of these examples is that the Evil Inclination driving Man to deny the Fundamental Truth of Reality is so great that even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the Truth of G-d's Existence and Providence in the world, Man will look for "loopholes" to continue being an "intellectually-fulfilled denier". (See R. Elchanan Wasserman's enlightening essay in Kovetz Ma'amarim on Emuna.) Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed when addressing the issue of the righteous suffering and the wicked prospering - perhaps one of the single largest challenges to belief in G-d or Divine Providence - notes how quickly people tend to forget all of the righteous who prosper and the wicked who suffer. Job comments similarly to his wife when confronting his own suffering "Shall we only accept the good and the evil we shall not accept?" (Job 2:10). Although the existence of much unexplainable evil in the world certainly presents a formidable challenge to faith, the existence of so much good serves to reinforce faith. Whether through Revelation, Nature, or History - personal or national - Hashem constantly reveals His Hand but yet provides enough enigmas to preserve free choice in choosing the good. It is up to Man to choose to see the overwhelming evidence or choose to ignore it and hide behind his own "loophole."

Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah Chapter 8) describes the source of the Jewish people's belief in Moshe Rabbeinu as the agent of G-d to teach them the Torah. Even though Moshe had been the Divine agent to bring about enormous miracles in Egypt and the Desert, "Israel did not believe in him because of the miracles he performed for he who believes based on miracles has doubt in his heart, for perhaps they were done with sleight of hand or sorcery. … Why did they believe in him? Because of Ma'amad Har Sinai (the Revelation at Sinai) that our own eyes saw … the fire and great sounds and [Moshe] approached the dark cloud and the Voice spoke to Him and we heard, "Moshe, Moshe go tell them the following….as the verse states ‘face to face G-d spoke to you'."  These words of the Rambam appear to be very difficult. Does not the Torah emphasize countless times the centrality of the Exodus and its miracles? (See Sh'mot 10:1-2, D'varim 5:15, 16:1 and many other places.) The whole Pesach Seder highlights the pivotal role that the historical event of the Exodus and its subsequent transmission from generation to generation plays in implanting and continuing faith among the Jewish people for eternity. How does Rambam then seemingly minimize its significance? Perhaps Rambam's point is elucidated based on our above presentation. Of course the miracles in Egypt could not be attributed rationally to sorcery or magic. Even the master sorcerers of Egypt were forced eventually to admit "it is the Finger of G-d"! However, Man's tendency to avoid an admission of the reality of G-d's Existence and Providence would lead him to rely even on very specious theories in order to avoid having to accept even the implications of overt miracles[2]. Hence, Hashem inisisted on transmitting the Torah in a fashion which transcended even possible irrational doubt.

Challenges to faith have existed ever since the beginning of Creation and have certainly increased in a world filled with hedonistic pursuits and an ever-changing frightening world filled with terror and uncertainty. The timeless truths established by the Exodus and Ma'amad Har Sinai coupled with G-d's everpresent hand in Nature and History serve as a constant reservoir from which the believer can draw to reinforce his faith, connecting him to His Creator in a constant bond.


[1]See also On Makkot and Scientific Endeavors and True Prophecy, False Prophecy, Tests of Faith and Preserving Faith for related presentations of the topics treated in this article.

[2]The "seeding theory" that life was planted on Earth by aliens from outer-space offered by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the enormously complex DNA double-helix structure, serves as an almost comical example of this tendency.

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