The Exodus:5 Project
And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile? Exodus 8:5
Among the challenges I faced during my years as a pulpit rabbi were the occasional members of my community who attempted to exercise power and control over me. There were two basic kinds of folks who wanted to manipulate me. Some of them were exceptionally insecure and pushed hard against me in almost a dare to prove what they feared the most – that they were unworthy of affection or disliked for being inadequate. Others brought to our relationship some type of resentment against rabbis or of figures of authority in general.
Of course, from the time I was a mere wisp of a lad, mature beyond my years, I never took the bait and went head-to-head with my antagonists. Yeah, right. Even today, it is pretty easy to get a rise out of me (especially internally) by trying to diminish me. I don’t like it, and I don’t know anyone who does.
Over the years I have wrestled with the question of whether my indignation has more to do with justice or ego. It is a hard distinction to make. To the outsider, the behaviors I find objectionable – belittling, acting dismissively, misrepresenting or plain insulting – appear to justify my reactions. But the fact is, I prefer to be liked rather than disliked. My own insecurities and resentments past are unpacked when someone else puts his or hers on display.
There is an old military riff about the drill sergeant who tells his recruits that when he orders them to jump, he expects them to ask, “how high?” on the way up. I know how those recruits feel; I suspect you do as well.
But I wonder how to develop the presence of mind to turn insecurity and resentment back on the antagonist. Is there any worth in an attempt to change the dynamic in such an exchange to make someone who is insufferable more tolerable?
In this little exchange between Moses and Pharaoh, there is a clue. You can tell even without context that the confrontation is occurring over the second plague: frogs. Reading too quickly the lead-up to this verse may make you miss a certain comedy in Pharaoh’s belligerence; when Moses and Aaron produced a land-invasion of frogs, Pharaoh ordered his magicians to do the same. And they did. By challenging Moses’ power and authority, Pharaoh made things objectively worse.
And then in a remarkable show of bravado, he dared Moses to do something about the infestation. “If you (and your God) are so great,” he all but taunts, “see if you can get rid of these frogs.”
I can imagine how I would have responded. “You want me to clean up your mess?” I would likely reply at a certain volume. Depending on how worked up I was, I might also suggest an anatomically impossible act.
But the more effective tactic seems to be to ask, on the way up, “how high?” Moses capitulates, saying, “I’ll let you win this contest. And not only that, but at just what time shall I stop the frogs?”
Completely disarmed, Pharaoh responds with an early completion date: tomorrow. And Moses agrees. Pharaoh believes he has prevailed, though Moses walks away with a (soon-to-be-broken) promise of a concession. And just to put the exclamation point on his real victory, (spoiler alert), Moses stops the frogs literally dead in their tracks the next day. And they stink up the joint.
I hope I am getting better as I get older. There is less at stake these days, or maybe I understand how little there ever was at stake when insecurity or resentment are directed at me. I am most certainly not perfect. Because even if I could turn the contest effectively back on my antagonists, I would still want to slip a dead frog in someone’s bed.