Rabbi’s Weekly Torah Commentary: Parashat Bo January 22, 2021/ 9 Shevat, 5781



This year, with its biblical-plague sized pandemic and its shocking excesses of inhumane behavior, I have been thinking a lot about the character of the Pharaoh of Exodus. What made Rameses II tick? We have only an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; but can we take the pieces that we do have and suggest the fuller psychological picture? As the biblical tale of bigotry, slavery and oppression, of resistance and liberation, scrolled across our tablet of Jewish consciousness for the past three weeks, sharing a split screen with images of actual, not only rhetorical, American carnage, I made a fortuitous discovery that helped me answer this question:

When my mother passed away, 16 years ago, and I emptied the books from my late parents’ library, I brought home, among other volumes, Erich Fromm’s treatise, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Fromm was not only one of the leading psychiatric authors of his day, but also an insightful commentator on the connection between psychology and religion. Having taken more books than I had available bookshelf space, I never unpacked the book at the time, and it languished in a carton in our garage. But last month, when straightening up to make a pathway for a workman to reach an electrical panel in the garage, Sheila and I “rediscovered” the carton and its contents. Fromm’s book gave me a vocabulary to express what I was seeing, both in the Bible and in the world around me.

Fromm’s discussed the concept of “malignant narcissism”—which immediately brings Pharaoh into the picture. Fromm named him explicitly as a leading example of that dangerous trait:

“The Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman Caesars, the Borgias, Hitler, Stalin, Trujillo—they all show certain similar features. They have attained absolute power; their word is ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death…” (p. 66)

What makes them narcissists, let alone malignant narcissists, rather than simply authoritarian leaders? Here, Fromm described a personality type that, as I read it, kept on suggesting, “This indeed is Pharaoh”.

When Moses first confronted Pharaoh with the demand that the God of the Hebrews says, “Let My people go, that they may serve me!” Pharaoh first responded, “I do not know this God” and continues “and I will not let the Israelites go” (Exodus 5:2). Here is the narcissism on display: If Pharaoh doesn’t know a particular god, then that god can not be important. Hence, the demands of that god can not stand up to Pharaoh’s desires to enjoy the fruits of the slave labor of the Israelites.

Like Pharaoh, the malignant narcissist described by Fromm thinks that he is the greatest; that everything he does is perfect; that he alone deserves credit for every good thing; that no bad thing can ever be laid at his door. Fromm explained it:

“The narcissistic person tends to evaluate his own productions highly anyway, and their real quality is not decisive in reaching this evaluation… This leads to a severe distortion of his capacity to think and to judge, since this capacity is blunted again and again when he deals with himself and what is his. Correspondingly, the narcissistic person’s judgment is also biased against that which is not “he” or not his. The extraneous (“not me”) world is inferior, dangerous, immoral. He and his are over-evaluated. Everything else is under-evaluated. The damage to reason and objectivity is obvious.” (p. 75)

Consequently, the narcissist reacts violently to criticism; and here, the narcissist becomes a danger to society:

“An even more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to criticism of any narcissistically cathexed position…The narcissistic person… reacts with intense anger when he is criticized. He tends to feel that the criticism is a hostile attack, since by the very nature of his narcissism he cannot imagine that it is justified……such people [i.e. narcissistic leaders] must try to destroy all critics, since they cannot tolerate the threat which the voice of sanity constitutes for them. (pp. 76-77).

Here, too, the biblical record, incomplete though it may be, points to Pharaoh’s narcissism. His penultimate word to Moses is a death threat—if Moses ever shows his face to Pharaoh again, Pharaoh will kill him (Exodus 10:28). That is the way in which a narcissist wishes to deal with persistent critics.

But Pharaoh was not alone. He commanded the largest, best organized state of the day. How did he maintain power? Fromm explained the dangerous dynamic between the narcissistic leader and the followers who do not merely obey, but enthusiastically hail him:

“From Caligula to Nero to Stalin and Hitler we see that their need to find believers, to transform reality so that it fits their narcissism, and to destroy all critics, is so intense and so desperate precisely because it is an attempt to prevent the outbreak of insanity. Paradoxically, the element of insanity in such leaders makes them also successful. It gives them that certainty and freedom from doubt which is so impressive to the average person.” (p. 77)

s to think about the people who support a narcissistic leader, indeed, who idolize him. Fromm explained the pathological quality in their support:

“For those who are economically and culturally poor, narcissistic pride in belonging to the group is the only—and often a very effective- source of satisfaction…Good examples of this phenomenon in recent years are the racial narcissism which existed in Hitler’s Germany, and which is found in the American South today. In both instances the core of the racial superiority feeling was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class… without any realistic hope of changing its situation (because they are the remnants of an older and dying form of society) has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior. The member of such a backward group feels: “Even though I am poor and uncultured I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world—I am white”; or, “I am an Aryan.”

Fromm’s analysis made sense of the disgusting behavior of January 6, how a group professing concern for law and order could turn around and behave so lawlessly. It also explained how Egyptians could respond to Pharaoh’s seduction and view the Israelites as an alien group fit for brutalization and ultimately genocide. We recall that, when the brave midwives resisted Pharaoh’s order to slay the male newborns, he turned to the entire people to become his willing executioners: “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile…’” (Exodus 1:22).

“If the narcissism of a group is wounded, then we find the same reaction of rage which we have discussed in connection with individual narcissism… Violation of the flag; insults against one’s own God, emperor, leader; the loss of a war and of territory—these have often led to violent mass feelings of vengeance which in turn led to new wars. The wounded narcissism can be healed only if the offender is crushed and thus the insult to one’s narcissism is undone. Revenge, individual and national, is often based on wounded narcissism and on the need to “cure” the wound by the annihilation of the offender.” (p. 86)
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In the Bible, Pharaoh was defeated, if only temporarily. Fearful for his own life, he let the Israelites go. But within days, he again sought to recapture them (Exodus 14:5-7). Israel escaped; Pharaoh’s henchmen drowned; Pharaoh himself, though, did not accompany them into the seabed, and so he remained, boasting on monuments of his unparalleled accomplishments.

But for us, the escape was enough, to propel us on our own trajectory into history, to serve as a model of society based on the opposite of narcissism. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, and even more: to love the stranger.

A message for Pharaoh: from the perspective of Jewish values, you remain a dangerous force. But ultimately, because Judaism has taught, and continues to teach, love and respect for the Other, what you stand for is rejected, and you-- you are a loser.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Michael Panitz