The CEO of Egypt Inc.*

Exodus 5

1 And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said unto Pharaoh: 'Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness.'

2And Pharaoh said: 'Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.'

3And they said: 'The God of the Hebrews hath met with us. Let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'

4And the king of Egypt said unto them: 'Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? get you unto your burdens.'

5And Pharaoh said: 'Behold, the people of the land are now many, and will ye make them rest from their burdens?'

6And the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying:

7 'Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore. Let them go and gather straw for themselves.

8 And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish aught thereof; for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying: Let us go and sacrifice to our God.

9 Let heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard lying words.'

A prominent Jewish Bible scholar described a peculiar situation that he encountered when he was asked to address an Orthodox congregation in Montreal while it was temporarily without a rabbi. The members called him to an interview, where they indicated their trepidations that a professor might bring the synagogue into disrepute by uttering heretical ideas from the pulpit. The scholar, while assuring them that he would not spout outright heresy, added that he might nevertheless make some claims that could be taken as controversial.

As an example of such a controversial statement, he cited the historical fact that the Hebrew slaves could not have built the Egyptian pyramids, since those structures originated many centuries before the time of the biblical story. In spite of the fact that the Torah makes no mention at all of pyramids, and states clearly that the Hebrew slaves were building "store cities," the synagogue officials insisted nevertheless that that the professor not challenge his audience's beliefs by making this contentioujs claim in a house of sacred worship.

The author concluded that "The notion that our ancestors built the pyramids is complete fiction with no religious concern underlying it, and yet here was a well meaning Orthodox synagogue whose leaders worried that my saying this in public on Pesah of all times would be a scandal and somehow weaken people's faith."[1]

In pondering the fateful exchange between Moses and Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus, I was reminded not so much of the fragile relationships between academic scholarship and Orthodox Judaism as I was of the character of this Pharaoh, insofar as his values are revealed through his choice of construction projects. While other eras in Egyptian history might have been remarkable for their veritable obsession with otherworldly spirituality--as indicated by their diversion of immense material and human resources towards the provision of abodes for the afterlife--the new Pharaoh who confronted Moses was of a more practical orientation. After all, he built storehouses and treasure cities, rather than huge imperishable tombs.

Moses was evidently not equipped to deal with such a monarch. The Torah's narrative shows us that the Hebrew spokesman entered into negotiations with the sincere expectation that he could engage his interlocutor in a legitimate dialogue that could focus on issues of religious belief and human dignity.

We may recognize Moses' openness to a rational exchange of ideas in his initial readiness to change his position to accommodate Pharaoh's concerns. Thus, after presenting his credentials as the representative of "the Lord God of Israel"--employing the unique and ineffable name of the omnipotent sovereign of the universe--and demanding freedom for his people, Pharaoh retorted that he was unfamiliar with this obscure deity. So Moses demonstrated his flexibility by taking Pharaoh at his word, and rephrasing his argument in words that would be more readily understood by an Egyptian: He was referring to "the God of the Hebrews," and he was willing to reduce theer demands to a three-day celebration in the wilderness, in order to protect them from being smitten by divine wrath. Presumably, all these concepts could be understood and accepted by your average pagan ruler, if only to serve as a basis for additional horse-trading.

However, it quickly became clear that this was not a serious conversation. The Chief Executive Officer of Egypt. Inc. did not respond seriously to any of the issues raised by Moses, but instead turned the conversation to a completely different topic: the loss of man-hours that would be occasioned by allowing time off from work to hundreds of thousands of slaves.

For the Pharaoh who needed new store cities to contain his immeasurable wealth, there was nothing to be considered beyond the economic bottom-line.

Against such one-dimensional number crunching, the naive Moses found himself speechless. From this point on, the conversation is transformed into a monologue: "And the king of Egypt said unto them... And Pharaoh said... Pharaoh commanded... Since all these consecutive quotations were spoken by the same person, there was no apparent reason to identify him repeatedly. It therefore sees that the narrator was trying to indicate that there were pauses in the conversation, when Moses and Aaron should have inserted their replies; and we can only imagine them standing there in openmouthed shock, unable to think of an appropriate answer to Pharaoh. They had come prepared to debate religion and ethics; but were paralyzed when they realized that none of this was of any relevance to a tyrant who held nothing sacred except his gross national product. What does one say to a person for whom the worth of human beings is reduced to the contributions they make to the enrichment of the economy?

The negotiations had now broken down, never to resume. From this point on, all communication between Moses and Pharaoh was in the form of ultimatums and the infliction of plagues. There was no basis for further exchange of arguments or ideas.[2]

Sad to say, the mentality that cannot see beyond the fiscal bottom line did not disappear with the demise of Pharaonic Egypt. Quite the opposite, it has never been as prevalent as it is in our own generation, when global mega-corporations have not the slightest hesitation about brutalizing their labour forces in order to produce a more competitive product; and we consumers are pleased to turn a blind eye to the sweatshop conditions that allow us to purchase sneakers or clothing at bargain prices

It is the same doctrine that leads so many social scientists and journalists to regard all human motivations as mere pretexts for economic conflicts. We witness this kind of idiocy daily in the pages of our newspapers, when commentators insist that terrorism arises from the frustration of poverty and oppression, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the most virulent of them, including figures such as Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 perpetrators, came from privileged backgrounds or enjoyed the comforts of western democracies, and yet are driven to their self-destructive crimes by their bizarre ideologies. Nevertheless, the academic and media orthodoxies still insist on trivializing motives that emanate from deep religious convictions, by reducing them uniformly to simplistic economic formulas. The British Mandatory authorities thought that they could squelch the will of the Jewish populace by retaliating against their economic institutions. The ineffective policy was no less stupid than the later assumption of Israeli governments that the nationalist aspirations of Palestinian Arabs would disappear once they had tasted the luxuries of Israeli affluence.

The nefarious effects of the Pharaonic mentality are not confined to the realms of global politics and world history. They often insinuate themselves into the modest details of our personal and communal lives. We see it in the shortsightedneess politicians and administrators who dismiss art, music and literature as self-indulgent frivolities, and try to reduce our universities into vocational schools. As individuals, we are not immune from manifestations of the same dismal outlook: how often are we inspired by the prospect of a wonderful project that will bring benefits of a cultural, spiritual or moral kind; but, in the end, we refrain from realizing the dream because we of our inability to justify it on economic grounds, or because of fear of the financial risks that will be involved.

While I would be the last person to urge irresponsible recklessness in the disbursement of our hard-earned money, we should recognize that some enterprises are noble enough to warrant some risk. And if we are truly committed to such causes, our enthusiasm has a tendency to inspire others, and to lead to their successful conclusion, against all rational odds

If we just look around us, at the institutions that we most admire and value in our communities, it is more than likely that their founders were originally discouraged from going ahead with their plans, by individuals who could not see beyond the soulless numbers. Fortunately for all of us, those pioneers did not accept those assessments as the final word, and went on to accomplish their impractical and far-fetched pipe-dreams

Like Moses, we might find ourselves unable to refute those nay-sayers in terms that make any sense to their stunted perspective on life. Nevertheless, we must recognize that to be fully human demands that we occasionally devote ourselves to dreams of a sort that cannot be gathered into storehouses and treasure cities


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, January 1, 2005.

[1] B. Barry Levy, "Text and Context: Torah and Historical Truth," The Edah Journal, 2.1 (Tevet 5762), p. 5.

[2] The interpretation followed here is taken from: Elizur, Shulamit. Poem for Every Parasha. Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1999, pp. 95-6 [Hebrew].