web analytics
October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



Home » Judaism

The Egyptian March Of Folly


Pyramids

There is a fascinating moment in the unfolding story of the plagues that should make us stop and take notice. Seven plagues have now struck Egypt. The people are suffering. Several times Pharaoh seems to soften, only to harden his heart again. During the seventh plague, hail, he even seems to admit his mistake. “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27). But as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. “He and his officials,” says the Torah, “hardened their hearts” (9:34).

And now Moses and Aaron have come to warn of a further plague, potentially devastating, a plague of locusts that, they say, will devour all the grain left after the hail – as well as the fruit of the trees. And for the first time we hear something we have not heard before.

Pharaoh’s own advisers tell him he is making a mistake: “Pharaoh’s officials said to him, ‘How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their G-d. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?’ ”

These words immediately transform the situation. How so?

Back in 1984 the historian Barbara Tuchman published a famous book called The March of Folly. In it she asked the great question: How is it that throughout history intelligent people have made foolish decisions that were damaging both to their own position and to that of the people they led?

By this she did not mean decisions that in retrospect proved to be the wrong ones. Anyone can make that kind of mistake. That is the nature of leadership and of life itself. We are called on to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see where we went wrong, because of factors we did not know about at the time.

What she was talking about were decisions that people, at the time, could see were the wrong ones. There were warnings and they were ignored. One example she gives is of the Wooden Horse of Troy. The Greeks had laid siege to Troy unsuccessfully for ten years. Eventually they appeared to give up and sail away, leaving behind them a giant wooden horse. The Trojans enthusiastically hauled it inside the city as a symbol of their victory. As we know, inside the horse were thirty Greek soldiers who that night came out of hiding and opened the city gates for the Greek army that had sailed back under cover of night.

It was a brilliant ploy, but Laocoön, the Trojan priest, had guessed that it was a plot and warned his people, in the famous words, “I fear the Greeks even when they come bearing gifts.” His warning was ignored, and Troy fell.

Another of Tuchman’s examples is the papacy in the sixteenth century, which had become corrupt, financially and in other ways. There were many calls for reform but they were ignored. The Vatican regarded itself, like some financial institutions today, as too big to fail. The result was the reformation and more than a century of religious war throughout Europe.

That is the context in which we should read the story of Pharaoh and his advisers. This is one of the first recorded instances of the march of folly. How does it happen?

Some years ago Dreamworks studio made a cartoon film about Moses and the Exodus, called “Prince of Egypt.” The producer, Jeffrey Katzenburg, invited me to see the film when it was about half complete, to see whether I felt that it was a responsible and sensitive way of telling the story, which I thought it was.

What fascinated me (and perhaps I should have understood this earlier) was that it portrayed Pharaoh not as an evil man but as a deeply conservative one, charged with maintaining what was already the longest-lived empire of the ancient world, and not allowing it, as it were, to be undermined by change.

Let slaves go free, and who knows what will happen next? Royal authority will seem to have been defeated. A fracture would appear in the political structure. The seemingly unshakable edifice of power will be seen to have been shaken. And that, for those who fear change, is the beginning of the end.

Under those circumstances it is possible to see why Pharaoh would refuse to listen to his advisers. They are weak and defeatist, giving in to pressure, and any sign of weakness in leadership only leads to more pressure and more capitulation. Better be strong, and continue to say “No” – and simply endure one more plague.

We see Pharaoh as both wicked and foolish, because we have read the book. His advisers could see clearly that he was leading his people to disaster, but he may well have felt that he was being strong while they were merely fearful. Leadership is only easy, and its errors only clearly visible, in retrospect.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “The Egyptian March Of Folly”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
The Jerusalem light rail train, crossing the Chords Bridge near the Central Bus Station.
Jerusalem Light Rail’s New ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Arab Violence
Latest Judaism Stories
God-and the world

The creation of the world is described twice. Each description serves a unique purpose.

Questions-Answers-logo

Question: I recently loaned money to a friend who has been able to repay only part of it. This was an interest-free loan. We exchanged a signed IOU, not a proper shtar with witnesses, since I have always trusted her integrity and only wanted a document that confirms what was loaned and what was repaid. Now that shemittah is approaching, what should I do? Should I forgive the loan? And if my friend is not able to repay it, may I deduct the unpaid money from my ma’aser requirement?

Name Withheld

Lessons-in-Emunah-new

To the surprise of our protectzia-invested acquaintances, my family has thrived in our daled amos without that amenity, b’ezras Hashem.

Business-Halacha-logo

Shimon started adjusting the branches on the roof. In doing so, a branch fell off the other side of the car and hit the side-view mirror, cracking it.

I, the one who is housed inside this body, am completely and utterly spiritual.

Should we sit in the sukkah on a day that may be the eighth day when we are not commanded to sit in the sukkah at all?

For Appearance’s Sake
‘Shammai Did Not Follow Their Own Ruling’
(Yevamos 13b 14a)

If one hurts another human being, God is hurt; if one brings joy to another, God is more joyous.

I’m grateful to Hashem for everything; Just the same, I’d love a joyous Yom Tov without aggravation.

Bereshit: Life includes hard choices that challenge our decisions, leaving lingering complications.

Rabbi Fohrman:” Great evils are often wrought by those who are blithely unaware of the power they wield.”

The emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is a most distinctive features of Jewish thought.

The Torah emphasizes the joy of Sukkot, for after a season of labor, we celebrate our prosperity.

The encounter with the timeless stability of the divine occurs within the Sukkot.

Hashem created all human beings and it should sadden us when Hashem, their Father, does not see nachas from them.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

The emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is a most distinctive features of Jewish thought.

Rabbi Sacks

Sukkot’s duality is that it’s the most universalistic and the most particularistic of all festivals

When we cry from the heart, someone listens; When we cry on Yom Kippur, God hears us.

Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? What do I want to be remembered for? If, as a purely hypothetical exercise, I were to imagine reading my own obituary, what would I want it to say? These are the questions Rosh Hashanah urges us to ask ourselves. As we pray […]

Simply, for Rambam the number 14 (2×7) was his favored organizing principle.

Torah isn’t a theological treatise or a metaphysical system but a series of stories linked over time

We believe that God created each of us, regardless of color, class, culture or creed, in His image.

Judaism is a religion of love but also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/the-march-of-folly/2012/01/26/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: