Strong emotions can lead to strange behaviors. Anger, for example, can lead to bitterness, and then to hatred, and render us so blinded that we are unable to act in an appropriate and ethical manner. Such anger may even create excessive traffic on the George Washington Bridge!
Even the Torah and its ancient interpreters noted how inflamed passion can cause people to do weird things. Early in this week’s parshah, Beshalah, Pharaoh learns that the recently-released Israelites aren’t coming back to Egypt, and he has an angry change of heart. He decides to pursue them, bringing the full bear of his military upon them. Like any good leader, he goes with them. But the way he does so is striking.
“He ordered his chariot and took his men with him” is the JPS translation of Exodus 14:6. But the Hebrew word here translated as “ordered” is vaye-esor, which Robert Alter takes to mean “harnessed.” Back in the 11th century, Rashi would have sided with Alter, for his simple comment on this phrase is “he himself.” In other words, Pharaoh didn’t have his underlings prepare his chariot; he did it himself. Why? Maybe the midrash is on to something when it said, “Hatred disrupts protocol” (Bereshit Rabbah).
Granted that hatred can bring about havoc, whether it’s directed at theological opponents (Pharaoh versus God, Moshe, and the Israelites) or political foes (the New Jersey governor’s office versus the mayor of Fort Lee?). The larger question, though, is how to negate such hatred. Is it possible to overcome excessively negative emotions and the damage they can cause? We’ll look at this through the midrash on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise