What Have We Done?
Wendy Amsellum is a teacher at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, and she directs the Dr. Beth Samuels Drisha High School Programs. She is completing a PhD in Rabbinic Literature at NYU and is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. Wendy can be reached at: email@example.com.
Towards the beginning of this week’s parsha, parshat B’shalach, Pharoh is told that the people of Israel had fled:
ויהפך לבב פרעה ועבדיו אל העם ויאמרו מה זאת עשינו כי שלחנו את ישראל מעבדינו
And the heart of Pharoh and his servants was turned against the nation [of Israel] and they said, “What have we done, sending Israel out from serving us.”
The plain meaning of the verse is that Pharoh and his servants are succumbing to the behavior they manifested time and again during the plagues – a willingness to send the people while the plague was happening, followed by a reversal of heart soon afterwards. Having recovered somewhat from the terror of losing their first-born, Pharoh and his servants now regret losing their slaves.
In the eyes of the midrash, though, Pharoh’s regret takes on a different tenor completely. Exodus Rabbah 20:5 compares Israel in Egypt to a field with a heap of stones. The owner of the field sells it to another man who cultivates the field. The new owner removes the stones and discovers a spring of water underneath. He then plants vineyards and spices and pomegranates. All who pass it are struck by the beauty of the field. One day the original owner passes by and seeing the changes wrought, he laments and cries out “Woe is me that I sold this field. Woe is me that I no longer own it.”
So too, the midrash explains, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they were like an uncultivated field weighed down by the stony burden of their labors. Once they leave Egypt, God cultivates them into a beautiful garden. Pharoh laments, not the loss of his slaves, but rather the loss of the verdant, vibrant Israelites whose potential had been squashed when they had been in Pharoh’s domain. Here too Pharoh says, “What have we done, sending Israel out from serving us,” but he is not regretting the loss of slave labor, only the absence of what could have been.
A second midrash, Exodus Rabbah 20:7, explains Pharoh’s regret in an even more striking fashion. The people of Israel are imagined as a prince who in the course of his travels takes up residence in the home of a wealthy man who hosts him generously. The King very much wants to see his son so he sends messages to the host daily, asking that his son be sent home. The host does not respond. Eventually the King comes and himself takes the son away. As the son leaves, the host cries out:
אמרו לו שכיניו למה אתה אתה צועק. אמר להם כבוד היה לי כשהיה בנו של מלך אצלי שהיה המלך כותב אגרת לי והיה זקוק לי . . . עכשיו שנמשך בנו של מלך מאצלי אינו נזקק לי בדבר לכך אני צועק
His neighbors said, “Why are you crying out?” He said to them, “It was a great honor for me when the King’s son was with me, as the King would write me letters and needed me . . .now that the King’s son is no longer with me, the King no longer needs me and so therefore I am crying out.”
According to this midrash what Pharoh values is not the slave labor and not even the Israelites themselves. What Pharoh really wants is God’s attention – and even if that attention comes in the negative form of plagues and punishments, Pharoh relishes the feeling that God is seeking him out. The loss of Israel means the loss of Pharoh’s intimate relationship with God and this is what causes him to cry out, “What have we done, sending Israel out from serving us.”
This second midrash is remarkable as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes. In the midrash, there is no slavery. Indeed, the wealthy host is described as treating the prince most generously. The prince and by extension, Israel, do not need to be saved. Rather the King simply misses his son and wants him back. The most central aspect of the Exodus story – the journey from slavery to freedom – is skipped over entirely by this midrash. Instead the story reads as a drama in which Pharoh’s actions are understood as a call for attention from God.
Why exonerate Pharoh in this manner? Indeed, why cast his regret over sending off the Israelites as anything more than the petty self-serving desire for slave labor that the plain meaning of the verse seems to indicate? I think that both midrashim are aimed at propping up the Israelites’ sense of self. In the first midrash, the Israelites were not properly cultivated in Egypt but once God steps in, they quickly become a choice garden. Clearly Israel has limitless potential when they are in God’s care. In the second midrash, Pharoh desperately wants what the Israelites already, naturally, have – God’s limitless attention. Both midrashim highlight the special relationship of God and Israel with Pharoh looking on jealously, and bemoaning, “What have we done, sending Israel out from serving us.”