When Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to pursue the newly liberated Jewish people, the Torah relates how he prepared himself for that pursuit: “He harnessed his chariot and took [or: persuaded] his people [to come] with him.”
The Power of Hate
The Midrash makes the observation that Pharaoh harnessed his own chariot. This, the Midrash states, pointed to his utter hatred of the Israelites.
In the words of the Midrash:
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: “Love undermines the rule of normal behavior and hatred undermines the rule of normal behavior.”
To prove the former point, the Midrash cites the verse that states that Abraham saddled his own donkey on the way to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, even though he had numerous servants who could have done it for him.
To prove the latter rule, the Midrash provides two models of hatred undermining normal behavior.
The first citation references Bilam, the heathen prophet, who saddled his own donkey on his way to curse the Jewish people.
The second citation is the one concerning Pharaoh who, despite being a powerful monarch with many servants at his command, harnessed his own chariot to pursue the Jews.
Bilam and Pharaoh’s personal involvement in preparing to harm the Jewish nation are ascribed to their irrational hatred, whereas Abraham's act of saddling his own donkey was evidence of his irrational (or, more precisely, supra-rational) love for G-d.
Difference Between Pharaoh and Bilam
The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos, volume 28, p. 162) contrasts the words of the Midrash concerning Pharaoh with those of Rashi, who cites Bilam’s saddling of his donkey as the only Biblical example of this phenomenon of hatred undermining normal and rational behavior. The Rebbe explains that Rashi considered Pharaoh’s personal involvement differently and asserts that there was a fundamental difference between Bilam’s behavior and that of Pharaoh. Bilam was consumed with an abiding and profound hatred for the Jewish people. Pharaoh, on the other hand, wanted to convince his people to join him in pursuit of the Jewish people to retrieve the national wealth he saw as having been looted from the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s behavior was not so much motivated by hatred, as it was by his prideful greed coupled with a burning desire for his subjects to join in the pursuit of the fleeing Jews.
The fact that Pharaoh flouted conventional norms, e.g., by preparing his own chariot, for economic reasons provides us with a powerful lesson concerning the shared irrationality of anti-Semitism and the excessive pursuit of material possessions.
We have seen the extent to which the obsession with the accumulation of wealth has caused and continues to cause people to do some of the most irrational and immoral things. How many times have we heard of people who have murdered a spouse to collect life insurance? An extreme example for sure, but it is emblematic of the irrationality associated with an unmoderated desire for wealth.
It may be suggested that the models of irrationality embodied by Pharoah and Bilam are intertwined. How many times have we been assailed with the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are consumed by an unnatural desire for wealth? Scapegoating Jews when the economy goes south is an all too familiar anti-Semitic trope.
What connects these two apparently disparate irrational behaviors?
We may find the answer by seeking a deeper understanding of the power of material wealth.
The purpose of the soul’s descent into a physical world housed in a physical body is not just to be able to serve G-d with our spiritual side. The soul was far better equipped to relate to G-d in its disembodied state before it was introduced to the physical world. The body erects barriers that do not allow the soul to express its full spiritual potential. Even if the soul were to break out of the chains of the body’s physicality, the soul’s passion for G-d while in a body cannot compare to the sophistication of the soul before it enters that body. Why then did G-d take a pure and pristine soul only to place limits on it?
The answer to this question, as explained in the Chassidic classic, the Tanya, is that the soul descended into this spiritually compromised world to elevate the material and the physical by releasing the Divine sparks embedded there. This we do by engaging the physical world for higher purposes.
In one sense, our involvement in the physical world is like a business transaction. In business, one invests money in order to receive a profit. A merchant gives away his merchandise to receive compensation that is greater than the amount invested. In effect, the way the Torah wanted a Jewish person to relate to the world is similar to the way a capitalist relates to the physical world. The difference is that the capitalist is looking for greater material wealth while the Jew is looking for a spiritual profit and cares much less for the material gain.
We can now see the interconnectedness between a Jew and a businessperson; both are consumed with a passion for profit. The difference is the definition of profit.
Because the profit obtained by doing a Mitzvah is indescribable, the person who follows Abraham’s example will appear to act irrationally, or beyond rationality, in the pursuit of that Mitzvah. One can compared him to a businessperson who is poised to make a multi-million dollar profit, and who will “kill himself” to make that happen. As we can see many times overs, people will engage frequently in extremely risky behavior to make more money.
The business model for a Jew’s involvement in the physical world can shed light on the roots of one form of Jew hatred. The hater feels, consciously or sub-consciously, that the Jew is engaged in some form of deception and theft. Before a Jew enters into the scene, everyone can compete fairly and evenly. The kernel of truth in that suspicion is that when we follow the Torah and use the material world for a higher purpose we have “stolen” the material world and appropriated it into a spiritual world, and reap a spiritual profit. The anti-Semite feels that he has no ability to compete in that arena.
Conversely, if a Jew is a materialist and engages in business activities without any higher goal in mind, it also stirs anti-Semitic feelings for the opposite reason. The anti-Semites feel subconsciously that the Jew is not fulfilling his purpose and is unlawfully engaged in a business pursuit that was not intended for him. The anti-Semite feels that a Jews is required to reform, rather than conform to, the world.
One hater cannot tolerate that a Jew is different while the other cannot tolerate that the Jew is not different. Either way, the animosity springs from envy of the Jew in his relationship to and involvement in a capitalistic society.
On the positive side, the antidote to irrational evil behavior is to engage in supra or trans-rational positive behavior.
Indeed, one of the characteristics of Moshiach and of the Messianic Age is that we will break out of all limiting structures. Our way of preparing for this glorious age is to do unconventional positive things in our relationships with G-d and with our fellow human beings.