Crisis Response: How Foolish Was Pharaoh?
At face value, Pharaoh seems like a cartoon character, the forerunner of Wile E. Coyote or Tom from “Tom and Jerry.” In a combination of tragedy and comedy, he continues his aggressive behaviors despite the consistent, painful injuries he suffers after each failed attempt to beat the system. How silly, we laugh, that during each plague he promises to let the people go, only to immediately renege after it passes, bringing on yet another plague. When will he learn? How could he be so dense?
The truth is, however, that Pharaoh’s attitude is much more relatable than we may think. Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l (d. 1936), the famed Mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, pointed out that we act the same way as Pharaoh all the time. When a crisis arises, we pull out our T’hilim, daven with extra kavanah, and promise Hashem that if He helps us through the painful experience, we will become better people. But what happens after the threat passes, when the situation improves? All too often, despite our commitments to improve and remain close to Hashem, we revert to baseline as soon as life returns to normal. Just like Pharaoh, we are motivated by the suffering, but have a hard time maintaining any lasting change as soon as the plague subsides.
Suddenly, Pharaoh’s antics don’t seem so funny anymore.
It is important to note that it is not considered shallow or self-serving to promptly remember Hashem and call out when tragedy strikes. On the contrary, t’filah b’eis tzarah – prayer during a time of crisis – is the quintessential situation in which the Torah instructs us to daven (Ramban, Sefer HaMitzvos, positive commandment 5). In fact, the very reason that Hashem sends us difficulties in the first place is to get our attention, and encourage us to repair our relationship with Him (Sanhedrin 97b).
Turning to Hashem during the plague is not the problem; the issue is turning away after it is removed. To avoid making the same mistake as Pharaoh, we should not restrict our response during a crisis to simply committing to make a change. Instead, we can actually implement a small behavioral improvement during the difficult time – one that will be sustainable even when the danger mercifully passes.