To the believer, there are no coincidences and, so I believe it is no coincidence that we read last week, the week of Joe Biden’s inauguration as our 46th president, parashat Bo. In Bo, the tone is put in place for an enslaved people to assume the role as God’s chosen nation. The galus and all its horrors was ending. After nine plagues, God with His outstretched Hand is set to deliver the final, terrible blow. Moshe, his head high, appears before Pharaoh at God’s behest and advises the tyrant that, “One more plague shall I bring...Every first born in the land of Egypt shall die... There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt... Then all these servants of yours will come...saying, ‘Leave – you and the entire people’.”
Moshe knew only too well that after that fateful night, Pharaoh himself would come crawling to him to beg and plead yet he reports that it will be “these servants” who would come. His doing so was no mere editorial revision, nor was it oversight. Moshe intentionally changed the message to impart a fundamental lesson about Jewish life and thought, a lesson Moshe was determined we learn and absorb even before we exited the long and bitter galus.
Rashi sums up Moshe’s lesson in three words, chalak kavod l’malchus (out of respect for the monarchy). Yes, Moshe tells Pharaoh that it would be his servants who would come to him “running to beg” even though he knew full well that it would be Pharaoh. Why? Because to say that the Pharaoh himself would come begging would be, on its face, disrespectful and unbecoming.
Our tradition teaches that it is inappropriate to speak disparagingly of the king and his crown. Not even Moshe Rabeinu, speaking as Hashem’s emissary, should address the king in demeaning terms.
But, one might argue, that lesson might well be wise in the abstract, but the Pharaoh was a tyrant. He was evil. Cruel. Wicked. He enslaved the Israelites. He denied them all rights and freedoms. He treated them as chattel.
Show him respect? He was a butcher! He slaughtered the male children, having them thrown into the waters of the Nile! When he contracted tzaras, he sought healing by bathing in the blood of Jewish babies slaughtered daily, so the blood would be “fresh”. To this… this… tyrant Moshe was chalak kavod?
The answer is, yes. There is no question that Pharaoh was all those terrible things. He was also sovereign. Jewish tradition teaches that the institution of government must be respected and obeyed. The reason is not subservience but rather the recognition that, for the well-being of its citizens, there needs to be a system of leadership, of governance, a hierarchy of authority.
It is the obligation of all members of society to obey and respect its leaders. This obedience and respect has nothing or little to do with the individual who heads the government; it has to do with the position. The crown is to be respected even when it is painful to respect the person upon whom it rests.
That is Moshe’s lesson. Moshe had no illusions about who Pharaoh was. He knew his wickedness and cruelty. But if he was king, he was to be respected for the institution itself. That is the lesson imparted even before we became an independent nation; even as we remained in the throes of Mitzrayim. Even then, Moshe insisted we learn always to be cholek kavod l’malchus.
As we contemplate our immediate, American future, we might remember that what was good for Moshe should also be good for us.
Moshe’s instruction was not policy debate. It was not an assessment of the man. So too, our position now transcends policy and legislation. There is no question that the United States stands for freedom, liberty and the opportunity for all her citizens. This is what we are obligated to honor.
We are Jews. We never forget. Our history drips with blood; it is defined by persecution, oppression, and expulsion. In America, a new Jewish chapter began, one in which we were granted rights never before afforded us. Our obligation as citizens is that we abide by the laws of the land. As Jews, we are to accord respect for its leadership, a respect due no less than that accorded to Pharaoh by Moshe.
Respect cannot be given in the abstract. It must be real, concrete.
Still, in my more cynical moments I cannot help but wonder whether Moshe could have managed to teach the same lesson if he had lived in a time such as ours, a time of relentless social media; I wonder if even Moshe wouldn’t have been “torn apart” for deigning to accord Pharaoh his due respect.
I have read what my fellow Jews – some of whom I know personally to be Torah observant, Jews with fine homes and good values – have posted about our new president even before he concluded his meaningful and inspiring inaugural address. I find their words and attitude disappointing and puzzling. Certainly, the former president accomplished many wonderful things for Israel and the Middle East and many in the community would have preferred he continue as the nation’s leader. But that was not to be. We have a newly- and fairly-elected president who at the very least deserves our respect. Yes, deserves our respect – certainly at least as much as the kavod accorded by Moshe to Pharaoh!
Yet, I have read in the posts the exact opposite of this message! “The new president is evil.” “He is insensitive.” “He will cause the downfall of this nation.”
We need Moshe Rabeinu to correct these horrible notions.
There is no coincidence that we read Bo last week! Its message speaks directly to the need to extinguish the poison in our political atmosphere and replace it with chalak kavod l’malchus.
“Pray for the well-being of the government, for were it not for the fear of its authority, man would swallow his fellow alive.” Pirkei Avot (3:2) The Mishnah teaches us to always pray for the welfare of the government and its leaders, a practice we have followed throughout our centuries of exile. No matter where we were, we remembered to express kavod l’malchus. Even during dark and threatening times, we acknowledged whatever good was bestowed upon our communities.
Yesteryear’s siddurim display the various Prayers for the Government that were recited every Shabbos and Yom Tov, mentioning leaders, presidents, kings and even czars by name. Many of these were evil like Pharaoh but we always remembered Moshe’s lesson – chalak kavod l’malchus.
We pray for the institution of government, even when it is a cruel monarchy. How much more should we pray for a democratically elected government which grants our community the freedom and liberty to be Jews.
Disagree with a policy or law? Sue all the way to the Supreme Court. Certainly fight “city hall”. But even as you fight, pray for it! For it is all that stands between order and chaos.
To those who argue that President Biden does not deserve your prayers or consideration. Let me respectfully challenge your “logic”.
In Jeremiah’s prophecy (29:7), God instructs the Jewish people to, “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray for its sake.” Need I remind you when Jeremiah spoke this prophecy? At the beginning of the Babylonian Exile! And about whom were we told to pray? For the very same Babylonians who had just destroyed the Temple and drove us to exile in their land.
Pray for the well-being of the land where you have been exiled? Shtuyiot! Or is it? Who is it that exiled the people? God. And He wants the people to pray for that land, for that golus where they must now find peace and tranquility for as long as God decides that they are to be there, until their next golus stop.
In Devarim (23:8), we are commanded, “not to despise an Egyptian”. How can we not despise an Egyptian? Simple, “for strangers you were in their land”. Enslaved, yes. Demeaned, yes. But with a place to live. Our tradition teaches us that we are never to forget that, and because of that – and that alone – we are commanded not to despise them. Only Torah can reveal a sentiment that seems to rebel so fiercely against natural human emotion.
Only Torah has the power to revamp the natural human emotions that fill Facebook posts and comments, that fill Instagram messages and are communicated on Twitter, messages filling the virtual – and real – world with venom and poison.
“Fake President,” a friend posted.
What would Moses say? What would Jeremiah say?
Just this morning, a newspaper reported that a certain rabbi had decided to reinstitute the prayer for the government and president in his congregation. He announced on his FB page that this Shabbat he is, “excited to return to praying for the success of our President!”
“Return?” Where were his prayers for the success of our President these past four years? As Jews, we do not “pick and choose”. We are to always show respect for the government. We are always to beseech Almighty God on behalf of the government, to, “grant them life and well-being, and save them from every trouble, worry, and harm. May He inspire them and all their advisers and ministers to act in good faith towards us and all Israel our brothers....”
As a new administration begins its term in Washington, I raise my voice with Jews throughout our country and the world in praying for its success, well-being, inspiration and leadership.
“May this be Your will, and let us say, Amen.”
IF your congregation does not have the practice of reciting the prayer for the welfare of the government, as well as the prayer for the state of Israel, I refer you to the Siddur Avodat Halev, published by the Rabbinical Council of America 2018, pages 554-556.... for the original Hebrew and meaningful English translation. Reciting it will surely inspire your minds and hearts.