Compulsive Greatness

One of the great enigmas in the story of the Exodus is Pharoh’s behavior. Each time a plague hits, Pharoh promises to release the Jews. Each time a plague ends and the threat is no longer imminent, Pharoh reverts to his position that the Jews must remain as slaves.

Pharoh was warned by his own people that his behavior was destroying the country. “How long will you allow this trap to continue?” they ask him. “It is in our best interest to let the Jews go.” Yet Pharoh can’t seem to release the Jews.

It seems like Pharoh is displaying addictive or compulsive behavior which is almost out of his control.

To understand Pharoh’s behavior let us revisit the story of how G-d created mankind. The verse states that G-d said, “Let us make man.” To whom was G-d talking when He said “Let us”? One explanation is that G-d was talking to the man that He was about to fashion. G-d said, “Let us, you and I, make man.” I will give you the raw materials, and even some predispositions. But it will be up to you to develop yourself and achieve your potential greatness.

At first glance Pharoh is an enigma. But when we look closer we realize that he is actually a person who developed a compulsion for evil. Even as it was clear to him that it was in his best interest to release the Jews, he simply couldn’t do it. Pharoh was caught up in his belief that he was a god. He spent so many years convincing his people that he was a god, he was simply not capable of acknowledging the true God.

But the stories of the Torah aren’t given to us to understand Pharoh. The stories of the Torah are given to help us understand ourselves and our capabilities. If “Let us make man,” can be used by a person to destroy himself, then “Let us make man,” can be used to create good wholesome people. Much as Pharoh developed in himself a compulsion to do bad, it is possible for people to develop a compulsion for goodness.

Developing a compulsion for goodness doesn’t happen at the first try. But by educating, practicing, and creating a nurturing environment it becomes a goal that is attainable.

I recall a particular incident that made a great impression on me when I was living in Lakewood. As I was walking to yeshiva one morning, I noticed a young girl shepherding her younger two siblings towards the bus stop. The girl was using every ounce of encouragement to cajole her younger sisters to hurry. Meanwhile the bus pulled up at the corner and the other children began to load. All the other children had loaded the bus, and this young girl was still a quarter block short of her goal. If eyes could plead, her eyes were pleading with the bus driver. “I’m really trying,” I could see her saying, “Please wait for us.”

But as she adjusted her school bag, and continued to encourage her siblings, the bus driver closed the door and pulled away. The disappointment was palpable. Even from my position across the street I could see she was about to say something. And she did. She said something that only a child raised with compulsive goodness could say. She said, “That bus driver…He’s so not nice.”

I don’t think there was any element of self control involved in the fact that she didn’t curse or use foul language. A person raised with lesser values would have, at the very least, called the bus driver “stupid” or the like. But this young lady was raised with a compulsion for greatness.

I heard a similar story from a plastic surgeon who works in Upstate New York. He was once called in to a patient who had been pushed down a flight of stairs. As the numbing drugs began to take affect before surgery he tried to strike up a conversation with the young girl. He asked, “How did it happen?” She answered, “It was an accident.”

“Who did it to you?” he asked.

“I can’t say,” she answered. “It’s Lashon Horah.”

Again, I don’t think this girl’s attitude is quantified as self control. I believe that it reflects years of training and development so that good behavior is attainable even in unnatural circumstances.

Every morning we pray, “G-d, please make us habitual in Torah observance.” We don’t mean that we should become creatures of habit, without treasuring Torah and mitzvos. Rather we mean that proper behavior should come naturally to us under all circumstances. Just as Pharoh in his way couldn’t behave differently from the way he trained himself, neither can we deviate from the way we train ourselves.

He just couldn’t do it.

Neither can we…for good.

With best wishes for a wonderful Shabbos,

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine
Young Israel of Cherry Hill
Torah Links of Cherry Hill

7 comments on “Compulsive Greatness

  1. I liked a lot about this post, Rabbi Rhine, but I don’t see the perfection of one’s middos (i.e., the girl in the school bus story) as the development of a compulsion — I think it is the opposite, the use of character to make oneself impervious to compulsion.

    Also, wasn’t Pharaoh’s heart hardened by God? That seems to really take his behavior out of the realm of conventional psychology!

  2. When my father a”h was in his final illness, he would occasionally become delirious. One time the TV in the hospital was on showing a golf game and he become upset. “The people in the woods” he said. “We have to give money to help the people in the woods.”

    If my internal imaginings came out without self-censorship, I don’t think they would be nearly as great-hearted as my father’s.

  3. The second story gave me pause. It made me think that the girl was abused but didn’t want to tell the doctor the name of her abuser because it was loshon hora. And that’s not laudable or praiseworthy.

  4. Did Pharaoh delude himself or was he brought up from Day One to be deluded? Or some of each? We often go on about the influence of the home.

  5. While all in all a really nice post that speaks well of how good habits create better ones, the plastic surgery story seems troubling in how it can be misconstrued – while people do normally tend to speak loshon hora too freely, certain things should be told and not ‘covered up’, if you will.

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