By Bill Dauster
All national leaders have staff. Pharaoh was no exception. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s administration included taskmasters, overseers, courtiers, sages, sorcerers, magicians and an army. Good leaders know how to pick good people to help them. And they know when to listen to them. One of Pharaoh’s shortcomings was that he failed to do so.
The Book of Exodus says that Pharaoh’s courtiers shared his displeasure when the Israelites failed to produce their quota of bricks, witnessed Aaron cast down his rod that turned into a serpent, saw Aaron strike the Nile and turn it into blood, and suffered frogs and swarms of insects in their houses. In these encounters, Pharaoh’s courtiers appear much like a Greek chorus, adding volume to Pharaoh’s entourage, but saying nothing that the Torah deemed worth recording.
But after Pharaoh’s magicians failed to produce lice, the magicians told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” Pharaoh, however, remained obstinate — his “heart stiffened” — and he did not heed them. The Torah does not waste words. It included this caution for a reason.
Pharaoh would have done better to listen to his magicians. The Talmud quotes the Sages saying: If your friend calls you a donkey, prepare a saddle for your back. Pharaoh’s magicians were trying to be his friends.
When Moses foretold the plague of hail, Pharaoh’s courtiers were divided. Some feared God and some did not. Those who feared God’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety, but those who paid no regard to God’s word left their slaves and livestock in the open. Moses concluded that Pharaoh and his courtiers did not yet fear God.
Even though God then hardened the hearts of both Pharaoh and his courtiers, when Moses threatened the plague of locusts on the courtiers’ and other Egyptians’ houses, Pharaoh’s staff summoned up the courage to warn him: “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let a delegation go to worship the Eternal their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” Pharaoh at first seemed to heed their advice, but negotiations that he led quickly broke down over exactly who among the Israelites would get to leave.
So now two sets of advisers had counseled Pharaoh to relent. The Midrash quotes a proverb similar to that in the Talmud. The Midrash’s version says: If one man tells you that you have donkey’s ears, do not believe him; if two tell it to you, order a halter. God gave Pharaoh two chances to listen to advice. Pharaoh failed to listen, and ended up looking like a donkey.
Unfortunately for both Pharaoh and his courtiers, their story did not have a happy ending. After the Israelites fled, both Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” Pharaoh ended up losing his entire army in the sea.
In the closing chapters of the Torah, Moses recalled what God did “to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country.” And the final sentence of the Torah repeats mention of the signs and portents that God sent Moses to display “against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country.”
The Torah remembers God’s victory over both Pharaoh and the staff to whom he failed to listen.
Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer from 1986 to 2017, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.