Pharaoh’s National Repentance Movement

Pharaoh’s National Repentance Movement
by Rabbi David Zaslow

from Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

Exodus 9:27–28: “Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them,
‘This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.
Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go…'”

When Pharaoh finally sees the error of his ways, it feels like a miracle. But no sooner has he let the Israelites go than he changes his mind. The Torah says, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart … and he would not let the Israelites go” (Exod. 9:34, 35). Many of us, like Pharaoh, have learned the hard way that repentance is not a straight path from sin to atonement. More often it’s two steps forward and one step back.

Rameses II was raised to believe he was the incarnation of the sun god Ra, with power and wealth beyond anything we can imagine. When his ego is challenged by his stepbrother Moses, he must be thinking: who is this Moses that I once foolishly called my brother? A Hebrew from an enslaved people! Not even a real, true-blooded Egyptian! For Rameses’s heart to open again, something tragic will have to happen.

It is only after the tenth plague, when he feels the heartbreak of his own firstborn son’s death, that Rameses yields to the God of Israel and liberates the Hebrews. Yet within a week of their emancipation, he regrets his decision and sends his top charioteers after them. Two steps forward, one step back. He is clearly in the throes of inner turmoil. As we know, the sea parts for Moses, the children of Israel cross in safety, and the Egyptian soldiers drown.

One Midrash suggests that Pharaoh was actually the lone survivor of the charioteers. The famous “Song at the Sea,” chanted with Moses leading the men and Miriam leading the women, includes the words “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” (Exod. 15:11). A Midrash proposes that Moses chanted, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods,” but it is Rameses who responds with the second part of the verse, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” This is a transformative moment for Pharaoh as he repents for his arrogance right there. In his emotional torment, still mourning the deaths of his son and soldiers, he calls out to God, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” He finally recognizes the God of his brother, the God of Israel, as the true Deity. In this Midrash, there is liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor.

If we accept the possibility of Pharaoh’s survival, the question arises: if he did live, why does the Torah never mention him again? A second fascinating Midrash suggests that after the incident at the Red Sea, Pharaoh flees Egypt to later become king of Nineveh, the Assyrian city God would later be sending Jonah to. Dr. Raphael Zarum teaches: “When the prophet Jonah showed up, Pharaoh immediately led a national repentance movement….Thus Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of change that we read about and learn from every Yom Kippur.”

Unlike Amalek, a character whom the rabbis deem as the archetype of unredeemable evil, Pharaoh is considered the model of a bad person who is capable of change. In his moments of passion and emotional wavering throughout the Exodus story, he reveals an inner torment that is recognizably human. The Midrashim of his atonement tell a parallel tale of metamorphoses from tyrant to liberator, and ultimately to leading a national redemption movement. These interpretations, as farfetched as they may seem, reflect back to us the remarkable possibilities of rising above our own limitations.

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