The Identity of a Pharaoh / On being enslaved to the external
The Torah introduces Pharaoh for the first time as “standing on the Nile”. This is not a mere geographical statement. Our sages explain that the concept of “standing on the Nile” implies an overall existential approach to life. The River Nile was the pivotal and chief source of the ancient Egyptian economy. Without the Nile and its irrigation system, Egypt couldn’t be Egypt – a prosperous, strong and mighty empire. So for Pharaoh, his entire identity and sense of self-worth hinged on the Nile, comparable perhaps to Wall Street in America today. Put differently, Pharaoh anchored his existence around something external to himself – namely the economy. Consequently, he became a hostage, a prisoner of his economic situation. For Pharaoh, life was chiefly about power, status and wealth. As long as he has these three things he is fine, but if he were to lose these three things that are not him, but rather external to him – his entire sense of joy and purpose in life would be utterly diminished. In five words, Pharaoh’s Philosophy of life is: “To have is to be”. Compare that to Joseph. At some point, Joseph was nothing but a faceless slave. He spent years in prison and in darkness. And yet, he never despaired or lost his sense of purpose and self-worth. Joseph represents the Jewish approach to life which is not “to have”, but “to be”.
Throughout the stormy seas of life, Joseph never felt that “life is not worth it”. He was free from defining himself by his socio-economic standing and status, or lack thereof. Joseph internalized that as a human being he is created in G-d’s image, and thus his dignity and worthiness are a-priori and intrinsic.
Throughout his tempestuous and volatile existence, Joseph always remembered that it’s perfectly legitimate and good enough simply to be. It’s OK.
We live in a society and a culture which can sometimes make us feel that in order to be of merit, we must be “successful”, “beautiful”, “wealthy”, or “socially prominent”. This is nothing but a sophisticated illusion. And succumbing to this illusion is not some immutable act of G-d. With mindfulness and hard work, one can be emancipated from the false and self-destructive equation of “I achieve therefore I am”, or “I have therefore I am”. It takes lot of hard work and dedication to live with the mindset of a Joseph, as opposed to the mindset of a Pharaoh. But it’s worth it, because the benefit is tremendous – it is freedom, and it is about being internally liberated from external perception.
PS This column is dedicated to Elaine Leon, who teaches and inspires me and many others as well.