Shemot: The Pharaoh Within
On May 1, 1845 a book hit the shelves that woke up the American conscience. Fredrick Douglas, the famed orator and abolitionist published his first book. In it he described his childhood and life as a slave. He begins by explaining that he did not know the date of his birth, about his mother’s death when he was seven years old, and how we was sold and sold again throughout his young life.
More than all the tragedies that befell him, Douglas was concerned with the mindset of slavery and what it does the human soul. He writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,
“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”
Douglas teaches that slavery is equated to mindlessness. Slavery is a conditioned coerced by others to create an environment in which the slave is shrouded in darkness and knows nothing else. The slave believes that the world as it is, where one is born a slave, lives with a human master is indeed a righteous way of being. Slavery clouds the mind, it makes you look down instead of up.
The condition of slavery once settled over your soul creates an ecosystem so complete that it creates its own sense of serenity. There is no hope. There is no other reality than being born into, working and dying a slave. There is nothing but this. As Douglas writes, “Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work.” They know nothing, but their prison, nothing but their slavery.
So opens the book of Exodus. The irony is that first parasha, or section is called Shemot. Hebrew books are given their names after the opening verb or noun of the first sentence. The parahsa opens by saying, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household” (Ex. 1:1). Each family member of Jacob goes down into Egypt with an name and an identity. But within one chapter, all names are lost, identities destroyed.
The first to lose his grip is actually Pharaoh, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex.1:8) The nameless king loses his connection with historic viceroy, Joseph. He loses proximity, and thus loses his humanity. For the rest of this chapter and the beginning of the next, the only names mentioned are the life-bringers – the midwives Shifra an Pu’ah. Other than these heroines, no names are mentioned.
Pharaoh becomes the only force in Egypt. He is the oppressor that pushes down the Israelites bit by bit. Not just by taking away their livelihoods, their land and their rights, but removing their humanity. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav points out that the word “Pharaoh” shares the same etiological roots as the word for being “wild.” He is the Wild One, that creeps inside the mind and oppresses the soul.
For Rabbi Nachman, Pharaoh is not just an external force, but an internal one as well. Pharaoh is the part of us that forces us to lose ourselves. In our lusts, in our work, in our success. Pharaoh is part of us that says it’s fine to miss your child’s birthday because of work, or to not go to the bedside of your dying relative. Pharaoh oppresses the soul by separating families and removing the vital human connection between people until there is nothing left but production.
Here we see Douglas’s point in full force. The Israelite, once a prosperous clan are now a nation are slaves and victims of genocide. And it lasted this way for hundreds of years. In the following chapter, we find that it says, “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was… When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket … She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.” (Ex. 2:1-3) We do not know who this woman was, only that she is a from a certain tribe. We do not know her name or her husband’s. We do not know the name of the child. In a book entitled, Shemot or names, the absence of names is glaring.
They have learned to sing while they work. They have learned to internalize Pharaoh. They have learned that every human being is measured in units produced, not in the infinite gift of their soul. The shrewdest trick of the oppressor is the make the slave feel content in their slavery.
This is where the Exodus begins – in the darkness of the mind where Pharaoh lives as much in the heart as he does in the palace. Each of us has a personal Pharaoh telling us to work harder, to forget others, to evaluate our lives only as a means of production. The first step of the next chapter of the Israelites, is the realization that in order to be free, one must banish the Pharaoh within. Only then, will your tomorrows be more blessed than your yesterdays.