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Respect for the Institution
“And all of your servants will come to me, bow and say, “Leave!” You together with the nation that is with you, and then we will leave.” – Exodus 11:8
Pharaoh Remains Steadfast in His Opposition to G-d
From the first time that Moses appeared in his court, Pharaoh’s attitude had been, “Who is this G-d that I should listen to him?” Time after time, Pharaoh insulted G-d and Moses.
Now, G-d is sending Moses on the final mission: “Tell Pharaoh if he remains in his wickedness, all of the first born in Egypt will be killed.” The stakes were raised.
Moses Changes the Message
Why treat such a king with respect?
Rashi tells us that when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, he modified the message. Moses knew that in the end Pharaoh himself would come running back to him and beg him to take the Jews out of Egypt. However, since it wasn’t respectful to mention that the king would come running, Moses changed the wording to, “Your servants will come running.” Rashi explains that this was done out of respect for the monarchy.
This concept becomes difficult to understand when we take into account what Pharaoh’s government stood for and who he was as an individual.
A Wicked Government
It would be difficult to imagine a government more evil than Pharaoh’s. Official policy was enslavement and oppression of the Jews – not as a tolerated social ill, but by government mandate.
State law denied Jews all rights – ownership of property, freedom of speech, the right of public assembly. They were treated as chattel, owned by the Egyptians. More than that, Jews didn’t even have the right to live. As the Jewish people continued to thrive, infanticide became state policy.
Furthermore, Pharaoh himself was a butcher. When he contracted leprosy, his wise men offered the cure – bathe in human blood. So Pharaoh bathed in the blood of Jewish babies every day. However, he needed a bath in the evening as well, and heaven forefend to use stale blood, so each morning and evening he would have 150 innocent Jewish souls slaughtered – for his personal comfort.
Why should Moses treat such a king with respect?
Respect for the Institution, Not the Individual
Our Sages said: “Without fear of government, a man would swallow his friend alive.” Anyone who has lived through a period of lawlessness can attest to the primal fear he felt as he helplessly watched rioting, looting, and mob behavior.
Ask a recent émigré from South Africa what it is like when a group of thugs appears at his backyard picnic and begins indiscriminately shooting up his family. South Africa is a country where carjackings, muggings, and armed holdups are the norm, and there is no one to talk to, not because people there are indifferent, but because the respect for authority has melted.
It seems that the answer to this question is the distinction between respecting the institution and respecting the individual.
For the proper running of society, and therefore for the good of mankind, there needs to be a system of leadership and a hierarchy of authority, what we know as government. For government to be effective, it must wield power, and its citizens must respect its authority. One of the obligations of any member of a society is to obey and respect its leaders. It is a correct and proper manner of behavior. Without it, society itself cannot function.
As the king occupies the position of leadership of the country, it is the obligation of all to respect him. That is basic to the good of society. It is the right way to act, and it is the way that G-d wants us to act. This respect has nothing to do with the individual; it has to do with the position. I may recognize that a leader as an individual is a lout, and I may feel that way about him privately, but as long as he maintains his position, I am obligated to respect him.
Moses was doing what was right and proper. Despite the fact that Pharaoh was wicked, he held the position of king, so Moses showed respect for the institution of leadership. Even though that institution was now being used to pursue wicked ends, the institution itself was still worthy of respect, and therefore Moses acted accordingly.
What this Means to Us
This message is particularly relevant in our times. Historically, kings viewed their populations as sources of taxes and foot soldiers – vehicles by which to expand their fame and fortune. Rare was the king who actually ruled for the good of his people.
We find ourselves in very different conditions, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Whether we agree with every policy or not, it is an unprecedented advance for the good of man, where rule of law benefits the citizens of that land.
To us as Jews, this is especially poignant. For almost two thousand years, we wandered from county to country, oppression to oppression, expulsion to expulsion. We now find ourselves welcome members of the American society, citizens with all the rights of any other citizen. We are allowed to operate our own schools in the manner that we see fit. We are allowed to worship in the way that we feel appropriate. We are allowed to conduct our lives in the way that we so choose. The only request made upon us is to abide by the laws of the land.
In the history of our long exile, we have never had it this good. And, therefore, it is especially incumbent upon us to respect this land, obey its laws, pay homage to its leaders, and appreciate the great blessing that we enjoy in living in this country.
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