Beshalach – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The early 19th century philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz (thank you to those who helped me remember his name) asserted that “war is diplomacy by other means.” In ancient Egypt Moses did not succeed in moving Pharaoh’s heart through negotiations so the resort was forcing policy through violence. Last week we read of the tenth and concluding plague that brought Egypt to its knees, breaking the back of Pharaoh’s resistance to the demands articulated by Moses. Now the nation of Israel could not leave fast enough. The Egyptians pushed the Israelites to leave, “their kneading bowls wrapped in their garments on their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34)
But it didn’t last. Pharaoh had a change of heart and mobilized his army to pursue Israel, intending to force them back to Egypt and slavery.
Pharaoh had made a valiant stand, sticking to his guns despite the pressure from the first nine plagues. One cannot help but admire Pharaoh’s resilience. He deserves some credit for standing strong in the face of the torturous plagues. But he also deserves some credit for eventually doing the right thing. He did the right thing, did he not? In the end he freed his slaves, allowing the nation of Israel to leave the country. Surely the evil we attribute to Pharaoh is mitigated by his eventual liberation of the slaves.
We have to ask the question – does Pharaoh’s subsequent regret cancel out any merit gained by his earlier “good deed?” A more general question would be – does one lose the merits of a Mitzvah performed if one later regrets having done it? This is discussed by the Talmud and later commentaries. Genuine regret for having fulfilled a Mitzvah seems to overturn any benefits gained from the Mitzvah, although disappointment about a loss, financial or otherwise, caused by the fulfillment of a Mitzvah does not strip the Mitzvah of its value. One Mitzvah that stands out is charity. The Talmud specifically underscores the merit of tzedaka even for motives entirely ulterior to the Mitzvah itself. Tzedaka is tzedaka even when the motives are for personal gain, even when one gives conditionally to achieve specific results. The Tosafists note that the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:3) urges us to serve God without regard of the resulting reward. They explain that this specifically applies to those who regret the performance of a Mitzvah when no apparent gain materializes. But the Mitzvah of tzedaka can and should be observed even one is motivated by gain.
Apropos to this discussion Rabbi Wein shared an insight in his column this week, explaining that repentance hinges on the ability to regret one’s earlier actions. If a person commits a crime and expresses remorse, even civil courts tend to respond with leniency. But in a religious and spiritual sense repentance can entirely erase the sin committed (Terms and Conditions apply). How does that work? How does regret together with resolve to act differently in the future wipe the slate clean?
We commit crimes due to certain pressures. It might be theft to relieve one’s state of poverty and need. Other indiscretions are committed due to different urges for experiences that are lawfully off limits to us. There are crimes of passion, crimes committed for self-gain or pleasure. There are impulsive crimes as well as crimes carefully planned and executed. Nearly always the crime is prompted by tremendous pressure. It could be pressure to gain more wealth, intense need of power, perhaps an addiction – sometimes it can simply be a lack of time to adequately prepare. A student, desperate for a good mark on a paper, might be driven to plagiarize due to lack of time or ability. The common thread is the pressure driving the indiscretion.
What redeems a person is the dissipation of that pressure. Sometimes perspective is gained only after the crime is exposed. The perpetrator may not have fully grasped the impending consequences or the severity of the crime. He (or she) regrets the past and commits to change his/her behavior. What happens in essence, Rabbi Wein explains, is that in the absence of pressure one’s true intent and desire is revealed. This person is not a thief – he was pressured to steal due to external circumstances. The student is not a cheat – she was driven to plagiarize due to intensive pressure to get a good grade in the course. The regret exposes who the person truly is. That is why teshuva, repentance, works. It exposes the real me, and the real me is not a bad person, I was just acting under pressure.
The sequence of Pharaoh’s decisions displayed the reverse. He was locked in his stubborn position, refusing to bend on the captivity of the Israelite slaves. Eventually, under pressure, he caved. But that only lasted a short time. Once the pressure dissipated and he noted the absence of his slaves, Pharaoh reverted to his true and evil nature, taking steps to drive the people of Israel back to Egypt, back to captivity and slavery. The same pressure which excuses the crimes of people who are basically good, for Pharaoh forced an artificial state of goodness upon someone who was basically evil.
Sins are committed by all. As imperfect human beings that is inevitable. But we redeem ourselves by regretting those acts. Fulfilling a Mitzvah is a wonderful thing. But fulfilling a Mitzvah and then regretting it is a lot worse than committing a crime and not regretting it. The plagues imposed pressure on Pharaoh to do the right thing, and he could have even taken the credit for doing the right thing, if only he had dropped the issue. But Pharaoh allowed his true nature to resurface once the pressure subsided, showing remorse for the good he had done. He erased any merit, using the mechanism of repentance itself to reverse his earlier actions.