Despite his generally bull-headed behavior, Pharaoh radically breaks the mold at the end of our Torah portion.
And Pharaoh sent for and called to Moshe and Aharon. And he said to them, “I sinned this time. G-d is righteous and I and my people are guilty” (Ex. 9:27).
Pharaoh surprises us with his contrite recognition of G-d’s righteousness. What brought about this sudden insightful and humble outburst?
Consider: Pharaoh is stubborn, cruel, and difficult in every meeting. He claims not to know G-d, he increases the cruelty of his slavery when he is asked for mercy, he ignores the overwhelming and awe-inducing nature of each miraculous event, and he ignores the pleading of his more moderate advisers. All of this is in addition to – or brought about by – G-d’s promise to harden G-d’s heart. We should, by all accounts, expect that Pharaoh will remain unfazed and unmoved, no matter what happens.
Yet, at this moment, Pharaoh is modest, deferential, and clear headed. He looks at himself in the mirror and finds himself wanting before the King of all Kings. This is difficult enough for any of us, but how in the world did he pull that off?
Chizkuni, citing an idea from the Midrash, addresses our problem:
“G-d is righteous”: Pharaoh never said G-d is righteous during any of the plagues except for during the plague of hail alone. And why was this expressed?
Only because when someone wants to war with someone else and to kill him, he comes upon him suddenly and murders him. But (in this case, G-d) said to Pharaoh, “And now, send for and gather your livestock and all that you have in the field. Any man or animal that will be found in the field and not taken inside the house: hail will descend on them and they will die” (9:19).
Indeed, G-d is particularly compassionate and kind to His adversary, warning Pharaoh before this most devastating plague. Though Pharaoh is generally deaf to the plight of his slaves, people, and closest advisors, Hashem’s remarkable and radical kindness breaks through to him, if ever so fleetingly. For a short while, Pharaoh is woken up and aware of the reality of his situation.
Now, please don’t take this as advice to just be generous with someone who seeks to abuse you and even kill you. That is not my intention here, and we need to at the least be cognizant of the fact that Pharaoh poses no threat to G-d, but we are all very vulnerable. Yet, this episode teaches us a powerful lesson.
It is not brute force that will find its way to the hearts of others. It is not raw power, even fear-inducing strength, that can change a mind and introduce it to the truth. Making someone hurt will not make them more lovely or help them develop their character.
As when G-d wanted to communicate with an angry, passionate, and zealous Eliyahu:
And know – G-d passed by.
And a great and strong wind, pounding mountains and crushing rocks was before G-d.
But G-d was not in the wind.
And after the wind there was an earthquake.
But G-d was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake was a fire, but G-d was not in the fire.
And after the fire was a thin, almost silent, sound… And (Hashem) said, what are you doing here, Eliyahu?
(1 Kings 19:11-13)
If G-d cannot get through to people through force and strength, we should certainly not expect that we will somehow get better results. If we wish to explain ourselves to others, force and discipline will not do the trick. That will lead only to obstinance. If, however, we want other people to see us, to have them come around to our way of seeing things, we will only do so if we are exceedingly generous, patient, and kind.