Upon the recent death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, the press rehashed what is known about the repressive regime, certainly causing many to wonder how any leader could cause such harm to his own people without even a pang of conscience. Reading about modern tyrants, those who cause some or all of their nation’s people to suffer, provides a unique perspective on the actions of Pharaoh of Exodus.

It is often said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Certainly the Egyptian Pharoah in the time of the Israelites had absolute power. He even had himself made into a god. Dictators such as Kim Jong-Il or Libya’s late Moammar Gaddafi tell their people that they are more than human, and go to great lengths to appear so. The Midrash notes that Pharaoh would get up early in the morning to go down to the Nile, where he would not be seen relieving himself for the day, since he had deified himself and claimed that he did not need to attend to his bodily needs (Exodus Rabbah 9:8).

To the average person, it seems quite obvious that such tyrants lose touch with reality. They seem to really believe they are doing good for the people. Even after Pharaoh’s advisors (and magicians) told him that the plagues destroying the land were beyond their magical powers, Pharaoh still refused to recognize the true Divine power. “Who is this God?” Pharaoh asked of Moses (Exodus 5:2).

The story of the Exodus reveals yet another insight into how a tyrant’s break from reality occurs. At first, tyrants usually believe they are doing the right thing. Since, as the leader of their people it is their obligation to protect the people, they believe that by protecting themselves they are protecting the people. After each of the first five plagues, the Bible notes that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He lied to himself in order to maintain his power. But, in time, he lost the ability to do anything else. So after the fifth plague, God helped Pharaoh achieve his chosen path by hardening his heart for him.

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