“Pharaoh’s Three Counselors”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the intense suffering of the Israelites in Egypt begins.

The rabbis of the Midrash are not satisfied with the causes cited by Scripture (dual loyalty, or the Egyptians’ fear that the Israelites will depart and leave Egypt impoverished) that presumably lead Pharaoh to call for enslaving the Jews and killing their children. The Midrash therefore attempts to tie together all the loose ends in the story of Israel’s experiences in Egypt.

The Midrash states that, in the 130th year of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, Pharaoh dreamed that, while sitting on the throne, he saw an old man before him holding a scale in his hands. On one side of the scale were all the elders, nobles and great men of Egypt, and on the other was a single sheep that outweighed all the great Egyptians.

Disturbed by the dream, Pharaoh awoke early in the morning and summoned all his advisers and wise men to help him interpret the dream. Among those summoned were Balaam, the son of Beor, the great gentile prophet. Another was Jethro, the future father-in-law of Moses, and the third was Job, a man of great faith, who refused to curse G-d despite his profound losses and suffering.

The Midrash depicts Balaam as spewing venomous hate toward the Jewish people, advising Pharaoh that a male child will soon be born to the Israelites, who will destroy the entire land of Egypt and lead all of the Hebrews out of the country. He advises Pharaoh to take radical action.

At Balaam’s insistence, Pharaoh asks Jethro and Job for their opinions. Jethro spoke up, advising Pharaoh not to start with the Hebrews. Drawing on the recent contemporary experiences of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he warned Pharaoh that any leader who had, in the past, confronted the Hebrews had met a bitter end. Pharaoh was angry at Jethro’s advice and dismissed him in disgrace. Jethro then departed to Midian.

It was up to Job to decide between the main royal advisers, but he chose instead to sit on the fence, saying simply that since all the inhabitants of the land were under Pharaoh’s sovereignty, it was up to the King to do as seems fit in his eyes.

Balaam then proceeded to remind Pharaoh that many different methods had been previously employed in battles against the Hebrews, all to no avail. Neither fire, nor sword, nor rigorous labor had been effective. Balaam therefore advised Pharaoh to cast all the male children into the river, for this was the only method that had not yet been tried against the Hebrews.

This well-known Midrash concerning Pharaoh’s three counselors seems to be much more than an informative legend. The three advisers may very well be prototypes of the many personages who throughout history were, or will be, in a position to help or harm the Jews.

Balaam seems to be the prototypical evil person who is bent on destroying the Jews at all costs. If this evil person doesn’t have the power to do so himself, he will seek the assistance of those who are more powerful. He may be the prototype of Haman or Geronimo de Sante Fe of Spain, the Jewish convert to Christianity, whose accusations against Jews and Judaism resulted in the deaths of many Jewish innocents. Unfortunately, this prototype has had many imitators, beginning with Amalek, and in contemporary times, Hitler and Arafat. They will do anything to harm the Jews, even if it results in grave suffering and destruction for themselves and their followers.

At the other extreme is the benevolent Jethro who deeply admires the Jewish people, and is extremely knowledgeable about their history and their contributions. It is Jethro who tells Pharaoh that the L-rd Al-mighty chose the Hebrew people in ancient times and took them to Him as His lot and inheritance from among all the nations on earth. Anyone who dares stretch forth his hand to harm them will be avenged.

It was Jethro who told Pharaoh about the many miracles that G-d had performed for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and reminded Pharaoh that his own grandfather, the Pharaoh of former years, had placed Joseph the son of Jacob above all the princes of Egypt because he recognized Joseph’s wisdom, and thereby rescued all the inhabitants of the land of Egypt. Pharaoh, of course, chose to ignore Jethro’s pleas and dismissed him in disgrace.

Unfortunately, in the long history of the Jewish people there have been very few models like Jethro (The Christian convert to Judaism, Count Valentine Pototski and Clark Clifford, President Harry Truman’s adviser, come to mind.

Job is perhaps the saddest and most complex of the advisers. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek” (The Voice of My Beloved Knocks), takes Job to task for being silent before Pharaoh and not speaking up on behalf of the wretched Hebrew slaves. To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik: You, Job, refused to intervene publicly with Pharaoh because you were fearful lest you be accused of dual loyalty. And, although you, Job, were active during the generation of Ezra and Nehemiah and those who went up with them from Babylon, you refused to use your wealth and influence to significantly accelerate the process of settling the land of Israel and rebuilding the Temple. You were deaf to the historic cries of the People. Instead, you were concerned only with your own welfare.

And so it was for the “Jobs” throughout the generations (Judge Samuel Rosenman, Henry Kissinger, and the Jewish Prime Minister of Austria, Bruno Kreisky).

How sad it is to see how often history repeats itself. Jews today have their determined enemies and beloved friends. But, most of all, we have those who are too fearful to speak up on behalf of justice, truth, and morality. We are indeed “a nation apart,” who, as the Psalmist asserts (146:3), must not rely on the goodness of princes or mortals.

Perhaps that is why the story of the Exodus from Egypt resonates so profoundly and keeps repeating, as the Jewish people fail to learn its lessons.

May you be blessed.