Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Pharaoh Narrative As A Tale of Addiction

I'm reading through The Big Book, which neophytes can think of as the Alcoholics Anonymous bible. I learned something new, namely that alcoholism is considered an illness. In Chapter 2, the text states, "An illness of this sort- and we have come to believe it is an illness-involves those about us in a way no other sickness can" (18). In italics, the illness is later described:
The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink. (Page 24)
William D. Clark, MD, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says in this clip "Alcohol, for some people, is poison. It just isn't the same for the alcoholic person as it is for a normal drinker. And once you get into that place of having alcohol run your life, it's like having an allergy to alcohol and it's very helpful to tell people, 'Look, alcohol is special- for you. It's different for you than it is for other people. Alcohol, in your situation, is a poison." He continues, "But I think the key concept is that it's poisonous, it's addictive, that the neurochemical changes in the brain caused by frequent and constant exposure to alcohol are such that people are no longer free to decide whether they're gonna drink or not, and if they drink, they're not free to decide how much they're gonna drink."

I came across a fascinating section in Chapter 3 that expands upon this statement:
Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to stop while there is yet time. We have heard of a few instances where people, who showed definite signs of alcoholism, were able to stop for a long period because of an overpowering desire to do so. 
As we look back, we feel we had gone on drinking many years beyond the point where we could quit on will power. If anyone questions whether he has entered this dangerous area, let him try leaving liquor alone for one year. If he is a real alcoholic and very far advanced, there is scant chance of success. In the early days of our drinking we occasionally remained sober for a year or more, becoming serious drinkers again later. Though you may be able to stop for a considerable period, you may yet be a potential alcoholic. We think few, to whom this book may appeal, can stay dry for anything like a year. Some will be drunk the day after making their resolutions; most of them within a few weeks.  
For those who are unable to drink moderately, the question is how to stop altogether. We are assuming, of course, that the reader desires to stop. Whether such a person can quit upon a nonspiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not. Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it- the utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish.  
~Pages 33-34
Even though Alcoholics Anonymous sees alcoholism as a disease and illness, they do not excuse their behavior as not having been their fault due to the fact they were ill. After all, people still got hurt in the process. Therefore, the Ninth Step of the Twelve-Step Program is to make "direct amends to such people [all persons we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

As I was reading, I realized that these ideas illuminate the Pharaoh story.

When we read the Pharaoh narrative, one of the most popular questions that is asked revolves around Exodus 9:12 and on.

  וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם:  כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה
And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.

Many people are deeply perplexed by this verse. What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Does that mean that God has divested Pharaoh of his free will? 

Many of the commentators address this question and offer interesting interpretations. Seforno provides a particularly novel one when he says that in fact, God hardening Pharaoh's heart was giving him back his free will, allowing him to decide what he wanted to do without being moved by his people's complaints or pleas. 

But if you look at this story as a tale of addiction, then you will see that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was an unfortunate but natural consequence of his former actions. 

I propose that Pharaoh was addicted to power, and specifically to the power relationship he had over the Jews. In the same way that an alcoholic loses the power to choose whether to drink and how much to drink due to his recurrent drinking, Pharaoh lost the opportunity to choose whether to exert power over Bnei Yisrael and how much power to exert. How else to explain the incredibly irrational decisions that he made?

Here is what happened to Pharaoh due to his refusal to release the Jews.

1. His main water supply (the Nile River), and that of all of Egypt, turned into blood. The fish died, which caused a horrible stench, and contaminated the water supply still further. It was also embarrassing that the being he worshipped as God (the Nile) was subject to this other, foreign, invading God's power.
       -Pharaoh takes no notice of this. Exodus 7:23 states that "Pharaoh turned and went back into his house; neither did he lay even this to his heart."

2. The entire land swarmed with frogs, which were a nuisance, but moreover, died, which created a stench throughout the land.
             -Pharaoh's response to this shows that he wants to behave rationally. In Exodus 8:4 he declares, "Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs from me, and from my people, and I will let the people go, that they may make sacrifice to God."

3. Everyone in Egypt becomes infested with lice, which is extremely unpleasant.
            -The magicians themselves point out that Pharaoh cannot win here, saying that "this is the finger of God" in Exodus 8:15. 

4. Wild beasts tear throughout the land.
            -Once again, Pharaoh longs to behave rationally. In Exodus 8:21 he states, "Go and sacrifice to God in the land." He solidifies his promise in Exodus 8:23 when he says, "I will let you go so that you can sacrifice to God in the wilderness; only do not go very far away, entreat for me."

(Look at the wording! Pharaoh cannot bear to be far from his power source; even when letting them go, he gives the condition that they should not go very far away).

5. There is pestilence throughout the land and the death of all the animals.

6. Everyone in the land receives boils, including the magicians who had formerly been replicating the plagues.

7. Fiery hail rains down upon the land and destroys the crops.

            -Pharaoh attempts to behave rationally. In Exodus 9:27 he admits "I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked. In Exodus 9:28 he requests for them to ask God to make the plague stop, and once that happens he agrees to let the people go. 

8. When it is predicted that locusts will come upon the entire land, the language of the pasuk is curious. It says that God hardens both Pharaoh's heart and that of his servants. But note what his servants say to him in Exodus 10:7!

  וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו, עַד-מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ--שַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם; הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע, כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם

And Pharaoh's servants said unto him: 'How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God, knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?'

Clearly, the impact that hardening Pharoah's heart has upon him vs. the impact it has upon the servants is different. The servants are aware that Egypt is destroyed, and that the only rational solution is to let the people go. Pharoah is only aware of this during brief, lucid, sober moments- but the rest of the time, he clings to his addiction, his power over the Hebrews. In Exodus 10:11 he requests that only the men go to serve God (a partial concession), and God brings locusts upon the land. 

In Exodus 10:17 Pharaoh admits he has sinned against God and Moses and Aaron and asks them to remove this 'death' from upon him, but once again, he goes back to his 'drink'.

9. Darkness covers the entire land; the Egyptians cannot see anyone or anything.
           - In Exodus 10:24 Pharaoh is willing to release everyone, including the children, except for the flocks and herds of animals (he needs some sort of guarantee or collateral that the Hebrews will return). When the Hebrew refuse this offer, Pharaoh becomes irate and tells Moshe to get out of his sight, because the day Moshe sees his face again, he'll die.

10. Death of all of the firstborn in Egypt.
--Finally Pharoah lets the people go, but not for long! In Exodus 14:3, it's declared that Pharaoh will assume that he can bring the Hebrews back because they are trapped in the land. 

Pharaoh loses literally everything due to his obsession with holding on to the Jewish people. His God is attacked, his land is filled with heaps of dead animals that create a stench and pollute the water supply, the bodies of his people are scabbed over due to lice and bursting pustules of boils, his livestock is torn apart or die, his crops are ripped apart by hail or destroyed by locusts, psychological warfare in the shape of darkness takes hold of him and every single Egyptian loses at least one member of their family during the death of the firstborns. Many times, Pharaoh wants to give in and promises that he will do better, that he will let the people go, or that he will let them go- partially. You can go- but not with your wives. You can go- but not with your animals. This is kind of like the wheedling conversations ascribed to alcoholics in The Big Book where people say "I'll drink beer- but not whiskey" or "See? I've licked alcohol because I haven't taken a drink- so let me take a drink now." Or swearing up and down to your wife or loved one that you'll be a changed man- but then showing up drunk the next day. And in the wake of  everything, after losing everything, Pharaoh still goes out, along with his whole army, to recapture the Hebrews. Who would behave this way if not an addict? It is Pharaoh's sheer desperation, his inability to live without the Hebrews under his thumb, without wielding power over them, that drives all his actions. The actions are neither rational nor logical, just like true alcoholism is not rational or logical- the alcoholic invariably loses his job, his wife, relationships with friends and family, his money and makes a mess of his life so that in the end, he is literally living in order to drink. In the end, Pharaoh's only goal (it's almost like he's a mad Captain Ahab, only intent upon the great white whale) is not to rebuild the destroyed land of Egypt, but to reclaim the Jews. And in pursuit of that, he perishes- much like the alcoholic in pursuit of more and more alcohol drinks himself to death when unchecked.

So what then, you may ask, was Pharaoh supposed to do? If he was truly an addict, in the same way that alcoholics are addicts, what could he do?

Well, the Twelve Step program outlines it beautifully.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

What Pharaoh needed to do was:

1. Admit that he was powerless over his addiction (in this case, an addiction to power, specifically power over the Jewish people)- and that his choices at this point were based on his desire to keep them in the land vs. his desire to do what was best for his country and for his people.

2. Believe that God (and in this case, following God's command) could restore him to sanity.

3. Make a decision to turn his life over to the care of God, not only by following God's order to release His people, but by then praying to God that He would be able to help Pharoah to live his life as king without needing to have the Hebrews subjugated to him. He could pray that God would release him from this insane quest for power at all odds, even as his country disintegrates around him.

But Pharaoh refused to humble himself. At first, he refuses to even recognize God (see Exodus 5:2, where he states 'Who is God, that I should listen to Him? I know not the Lord and I will not let Israel go'), then he admits that he has sinned to God, but always asks an intermediary (Moshe and/or Aharon) to pray to God. He never prays to God Himself. He never acknowledges Him or asks for help ruling over or controlling his addiction. (It is deliciously ironic that Moshe, the humblest man ever to have lived, is pitted against Pharaoh  the man whose problem is that he cannot humble himself!) And so the real sin of Pharaoh isn't necessarily the fact that he has an addiction, but that he doesn't take the requisite steps to cure himself of it (or at least, since one can argue no addict is ever truly cured), to manage it.

Thus, the Pharaoh story becomes a cautionary tale. It is the story of a man who was so addicted to power that he lost his life, his country, and his nation. He and his countrymen were drowned at sea, and his land was ravaged by the ten plagues. Had he acknowledged God and followed His command, or at least thrown himself on God's mercy by directly asking God for the strength to allow him to successfully release the Jews, we might be reading a very different story. We might be reading the story of a recovering power addict, spared by the grace of God, rather than the story of one who lost everything.


Dana said...

Whooaaaaaa... very thought-provoking and very interesting take. I think this is a great read into why Paro acted the way he did, and a fresh way at perhaps examining the "do we have free will?" conundrum.
Thanks Chana!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, thank you.

By the way, a similar point was recently made by a Christian addict (read comments).

Unknown said...

Very nice exposition!

Shades of Gray said...

I haven't have a chance to listen to it yet, but I saw this link to a YU Torah shiur "Addiction and Torah" given this winter by Rabbi Shais Taub, who is a known author and speaker on addiction(he also writes a column for AMI Magazine):

Anonymous said...


David_on_the_Lake said...

This is uncanny. Brilliant..

I thought a very similar thought while learning Parshas Bo.

R' Mordechai Pogremonsky asks, why does Pharoh beseech Moshe to "Take Away this Death" by Locusts. Where do we find death by Arbeh?
He answers that Pharoh was referring to his sudden loss of Bechira, Free Will.

So then why doesn't God Help him?

Because he asks Moshe to ask God...he never approaches God himself.
I think all people have Moshe and Pharoh inside themselves. But when we're doing teshuva we're usually in Moshe mode asking on behalf of our inner Pharoh.
It's very very difficult to truly want to give up our defects with every part of our being.
Which is why addicts usually need to hit a rock bottom to shatter that persona, before they can admit that their life is unmanageable