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Friday - Shabbat January 15 - 16 

Torah Reading: VaEra (Exodus 6:2 - 9:35)
Candle Lighting Time 4:34 PM
Shabbat ends 5:39 PM

About Face

The central figure of the Biblical story of the Exodus is obviously Moses. However, in this week’s parsha Pharaoh’s name appears even more frequently than that of Moses. Indeed, Pharaoh—or as he is mentioned simply as the “king of Egypt”—occurs more often in the Book of Exodus (through the story of the Splitting of the Red Sea) than Moses!

How is it that a villain as evil as Pharaoh should be so highlighted in the Torah?

Another question asked is why is it that Pharaoh’s actual name (or names – as there was almost certainly more than one Pharaoh involved in subjugating the Jews over the years of their servitude) is never mentioned in the Torah?

Almost all other kings that are mentioned in the Torah are mentioned by name. When Abraham joins the battle between the alliance of four kings and the alliance of five kings, all of the nine king’s names are provided for in the Biblical text. Likewise dozens of other monarchs whose names—not just their titles—are mentioned throughout Biblical literature. Why then are the names of the Pharaohs absent in the Torah?

The answer to these two questions lies in the mystical significance of the title Pharaoh. The masters of Kabbalah teach us that the letters of the Hebrew word Pharaoh, when rearranged, spells the word ha’oref, which means the back; or more precisely, the nape of the neck.

These two anatomical features—the face and the back or nape of the neck—represent two diametrically opposite physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dynamics.

The face expresses one’s inner feelings. When we look at the face of another person we can tell if the person is happy or sad, pleased or angry, consonant with the expression: “It’s written all over his face.” When a person shows you their face they are inviting you into their inner space.

It is interesting to note that while in the English language the word face connotes the surface or outward appearance of something—as in the expression, “at face value”—in Hebrew the word for face-panim is synonymous with the word pnimiyut-which denotes inwardness. In Modern Hebrew the word “internalize” is l’hafnim, cognate to the word panim, face. 

When a person shows you their face, they are communicating with you. And often it is a more profound communication than the one that occurs through calculated words. In these days, we are witness to modern technological advances that will produce electronic devices that can read a person’s intentions by just examining his or her facial features. 

By contrast, when one has their back towards us we know virtually nothing about their personality, attitude, frame of mind, disposition etc. Standing with one’s back towards another expresses the most superficial and external connection that they may have with the other.

What is true for humans serves as a metaphor for the reciprocal relationship G‑d has with us and we have with Him.

There are two ways G‑d relates to us. He can either show us His face. This means, metaphorically speaking of course, that when G‑d generates His light and energy to us, He can do it with a sense of satisfaction and delight. This is what happens when we go out of our way to show Him our face. When we express our innermost feelings of love and reverence for Him in the performance of the Mitzvot, when our face beams with joy and delight at the opportunity to serve G‑d, G‑d reciprocates by showing us His face; His most profound faculties. When we eschew superficiality in our relationship with Him, G‑d reveals to us His deeper feelings as well. His concern for us is not perfunctory. His supervision over us is more pronounced and revealed.

But there is another dynamic that occurs in the human-G‑d relationship. When someone turns his back on G‑d, so to speak, G‑d may still generate His light to us to give us life, but He will do so by figuratively “turning His back” towards us and show us no deep feeling, no joy. When that happens our lives are rendered devoid of any real depth.

Our “sterile” relationship with G‑d translates in all areas of life and adversely affects our interpersonal relationships as well. We can become lethargic, petty or even withdrawn. Charisma derives from having the ability to express our inner personalities; when we can show our face. When we lack that—because we are connected to G‑d’s “back” rather than His face—we can degenerate in various negative ways.

Enter Pharaoh-ha-oreph!

Pharaoh was the very personification of the lackluster uncharismatic leader, who has no real identity because he is always having his back towards G‑d, Moses, the Jewish people and his own people and indeed all of history. Pharaoh, the Kabbalists teach us, derived from G‑d’s “back.”

To be sure, Pharaoh was actually physically facing Moses. Nevertheless, he was the ultimate spiritual poker-faced individual. His face was no better than his back. He was one faceless individual with no depth and no true personality. Pharaoh exclaims “I don’t know G‑d.” The term “knowing” in Biblical parlance indicated intimate knowledge as in “Adam knew Eve.” He was right. The Pharaoh mentality cannot develop any deep and intimate relationship with G‑d or with other people 

However, it is precisely these faceless and dull “back - Oref” personalities that can be very dangerous. A person who has nothing internal and deep to offer will just try to show their power. They have no real self worth and they therefore have to be the bullies to give themselves some measure of security. Pharaoh, the ultimate personification of the uncharismatic monarch, has to become the bully and tyrant who exclaims, “The River is mine and I have made myself.” He is a self proclaimed g-d!

Even when he sees how much the plagues have destroyed his country he remains stubbornly attached to his insistence that he will not let the Israelites go. And, incidentally, the term ha’oref, is also used to describe a “stiff-necked” person. Pharaoh was the embodiment of the irrational stubborn individual who will go down and take everyone with him rather than do what’s right.

We can now understand why Pharaoh’s specific name is not mentioned in the Torah because the hallmark of the Pharaohs was their “back-ness”—the absence of a true personality. 

But why were the Pharaohs more faceless than other pagan and evil monarchs?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that they were the leaders of Mitzraim (Egypt), which also has the connotation of being “in the straits”—confined. The very land was conducive to a mindset that constricted and suffocated everything in its midst and snuffed out any vestige of spiritual life. 

In Chassidic thought Mitzraim is related to the narrow passage of the neck that occludes the passage of life from the mind to the heart. When one’s mind does not have an effect on one’s emotions and behavior, they shrivel and lose their personality. They become Pharaohs who have no identities except the identity of the faceless, dull and stubborn tyrant, who has to make a name for himself by self-deification and the subjugation of others.

As we stand now at the tail end of the period known as exile and on the verge of crossing over into the period of Redemption, we discover that the last leap is the most difficult because it requires a paradigm shift. We must consider what it is about exile that we don’t like and what we want in the Redemption.

To get out of exile we must reject the Pharaoh mindset. We cannot just live by receiving our life support from G‑d’s “back.” That was the mode of exile living. We must learn how to “see” G‑d face to face by showing Him and others our own cheerful countenance that dramatizes the deep rooted joy and passion we have for G‑d and others. G‑d will then shine His light on us and deliver us from the modern day Pharaohs, whatever their name might be.

Moshiach Matters  

"The belief in the future Redemption is part of the belief in G‑d, which is the first of the ten Commandments, 'I am the L-rd your G‑d.' When it comes to discussing G‑d, we find that in is common for us to discuss it and talk about it. However, when it comes to discussing Moshiach and the Resurrection of the Dead, we shy away from the subject!... Whoever is not totally involved in the complete belief of the Redemption and the resurrection is similarly incomplete in his belief in G‑d." (Ohr Yechezkel, Rabbi Yechezkel Lowenstein, Ponovitz Yeshivah)  

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