My annual Passover post — Pharaoh’s hard heart and the nature of tyranny

I wrote this during Iran’s Green Revolution.  For the paragraphs regarding Iran, please feel free to substitute Syria, the Sudan, the economic victims of the financially decimated European Union, Palestinian children who are pawns in Hamas’ genocidal strategy, or any other group of people groaning under a tyrant’s yoke.

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An antisemitic Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as the celebration of freedom (the world’s first and for a long time only successful slave revolt), and of justice and morality (the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people. What troubles him so much is the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague, culminating in the death of the first born.

I know that some people have tried to explain away this part of the story by saying that it is simply dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger of the Jew’s escape from Egypt. After all, if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. You know, Moses asks, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh answers “Sure.” That’s not a narrative with much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting. It’s much more exciting to have an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

This reasoning is silly. There’s a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, despite an increase in the burdens placed upon his people. A blood filled Nile River may, at first, have seemed appalling, but the red receded and life went on. Pharaoh still held together his government. The same held true for each subsequent plague, whether lice or boils or wild animals or frogs, or whatever: As long as Pharaoh could maintain his power base, he was okay with the incremental decimation visited upon those he ruled.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might worry about a populace starving and frightened, but that was irrelevant as long as that same populace continued to fear and worship him. The people’s suffering, ultimately, was irrelevant to his goals. It was only when the price became too high — when Pharaoh’s power base was destroyed because his citizens were destroyed — that Pharaoh was convinced, even temporarily, to alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years. Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII. For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over. Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear or insanity, would not gainsay him. Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was willing to see its country overrun and its citizens killed. Only when the death toll became too high, and it was apparent that nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, did the war on the continent finally end.

The same held true for the Japanese. Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the hell of it. Even the fact that it would impress the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so. What swayed Truman was the fact that his advisers told him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender even when surrender had become the only reasonable option. Instead, the military warned Truman that, although the Americans would inevitably win the war, if Truman didn’t take drastic action, victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and at least that many Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman therefore had two choices: another year of war, with the loss of 100,000 Americans and many more than 100,000 Japanese; or an immediate stop to the war, with no more American casualties and at least 100,000 Japanese casualties. Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer. The outcome would be the same for the Japanese, but Truman would save the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, British, Australians and Dutch. (One of those Dutch, incidentally, was my Mom, who was on the verge of starving to death in a Japanese concentration camp.) The Japanese high command was Pharaoh. No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path. Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

But what about the innocent lives lost as a result of Pharaoh’s, the Nazi’s, and the Japanese high command’s intransigence? As the Japanese tale shows only too well, the innocents were always going to die, with the only question being whether they would die quickly or slowly. The same holds true for the Germans, whom the Nazis had long ago designated as cannon fodder to support their intensely evil regime. That’s the problem with an evil regime. If you’re unlucky enough to live under that regime, whether or not you support it, you’re going to be cannon fodder. Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned — as long as they can retain their power.

Iran is no different. Although the people bleed and cry under the brutish regime, no plague, including rioting in the streets, has come along that is bad enough to break the back of that tyranny. The people continue to die by inches, and the regime threatens everyone within bombing distance.

Liberals believe that it is immoral to impose serious consequences against the Iranian regime because there are innocents who will suffer from those consequences. What these liberals fail to understand is that, when power doesn’t reside in the people, but resides, instead, in a single group that is insulated from all but the most terrible strikes, imposing small plagues against the country (freezing a few bank accounts, public reprimands, vague threats) is utterly useless. These small plagues, no matter how much they affect the ordinary citizen, do not affect the decision-making process in which a tyrant engages. The only thing that will move the tyrant is to destroy his power base. Everything else is theater.

With that, I’d like to wish all of you a Happy Passover. Whether Jewish or not, I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our ultimate goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

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  • Jose

    Its worth repeating that when Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, it was already a heart of stone.  The Hebrews were being worked to death, and the male children were executed at birth.  Later writers would call Egypt the “Iron Furnace”, and today we might compare it to a concentration camp. 
     
    As for the general populace who were affected, we they all that innocent?  Look at the treatment of today’s Copts imposed by the majority of the population in the same country.  Again, we can think about the German’s who looked the other way.
     
    My final comment is that anyone who says the holiday celebrates genocide of the Egyptians is simply ignorant.  It truly is about an escape to freedom.  The original passover meal was composed of travel rations, and was eaten with sandals laced, staff in hand, and in readiness to move out at a moments notice.

  • SADIE

    Passover and Exodus updated.

    In many homes bringing a personal story to the table of how we individually freed ourselves from bondage (bad habits that kept us from being free is offered). With that brief explanation …may we all stop being slaves for what ever keeps us from being free.   

  • Danny Lemieux

    Happy Passover and Happy Easter, everyone.

  • MacG

    ” immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people”  I did not know that there are no more Egyptians…Genocide who else was G-d gonna press to let the Israelites go?  If your Liberal firend would read carefully even the Iraelites were at rick of having their 1st born visited by the angel of death if they did not put the blood of the lamb on the door post. 

    His spin is unique for it seems that he is for Egyptian (oppression) style slavery, let the oppressed be oppressed it is their problem.  I suppose then that he decries the Civil was and all of the ‘white’ blood spilled by the liberators to set them free.  Would he have worked to keep the American slaves captive?

  • Call me Lennie

    You’re 90% of the way there with respect to the need to drop the A-bomb, Bookie my dear. What was necessary was to introduce a weapon so far beyond any previous experience, in terms of destructiveness, that there would be no shame involved if you were to surrender to it.  It would be like surrendering to a cataclysmic force of nature.  In the hyper Bushido culture created by Japanese militarists it would always be shameful to flee from a human enemy no matter how much better armed he was; but it wouldn’t be shameful at all to flee from a force of nature like a tsunami.  So that’s what the A-bomb did — it removed shame from the equation.

    As for the numbers who would have died, I’m positive the number you cited is much too low.  The first step of the invasion plan was to invade the southernmost island of Kyushu which was defended by almost 700,000 troops, who would have fought to the death, so that s 700,000 Japanese lives right there.  And given that 100,000 civilians died on Okinawa and the fact that Kyushu has ten times the population as Okinawa, you’d have to consider the possibility that 1 million civilians would have been killed along with 100,000 Americans. So I figure that at least 1.5 million lives were spared by the bomb, on the island of Kyushu alone 

       

  • Danny Lemieux

    Good points, Call Me Lennie. I had heard that the estimated number of U.S. casualties was closer to 1 million.

    The other consideration was that the A-bombs were relatively humane. What was devastating was not the number of casualties but the fact that they were delivered by single bombs. That fact had to underly the Japanese calculations by completely upping the ante. Imagine the terror of hundreds of B-29 bombers, each equipped with an A-bomb…there was no longer any potential defense against such a threat. Plus, to the Japanese psyche, there was no honorable way to die by  one last glorious charge at the enemy under this scenario. It really was game over.

    The fire-bombings of Tokyo and other cities were far more devastating in terms of destroyed lives and suffering, btw.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Just finished reading The Approaching Storm, by Norma Waln, an American woman who lived in Germany and Austria from 1933-1938. The author, raised a Quaker, made many close friends among Germans and Austrians, and also sought out the acquaintance of pro-Nazis to understand their views and motivations. Although she clearly saw what was going on–she knew quite a few people who had spouses or children thrown into concentration camps, or were driven into impoverished exile–when the book ends in 1938 she still has herself convinced that the essential goodness of the German people will somehow manifest itself in a turn away from Naziism.

    The original TIME Magazine 1939 review of the book (under its original title, Reaching for the Stars) is on-line…can’t read the whole thing as I’m not a subscriber, but it begins as follows:

    “You cannot indict a whole people, but unless you do you cannot start a war against them. For the common people on both sides in the World War, that lesson seemed bitterly evident for all time. Today it is apparently being forgotten all over again. Few men-in-the-street nowadays make much distinction between Hitler and the German people. For the majority, all Germans are 100% Nazi goosesteppers.
    Nora Waln’s Reaching for the Stars would do this majority good.”

    The above was published only 1 year before the German invasion of France!

    It was true of course that there were many non-Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans, but this was not very relevant to the main issue of the time, which was stopping Nazi Germany militarily. And the idea..in 1939!…that the main danger was someone “starting a war against them”, where “them” is Germany…was simply bizarre. 

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Most of the Japanese high command and army wanted to continue fighting.

    They even tried to kidnap and hold the Emperor silent until the war was over.

     

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Speaking of evil regimes. How has the military reallocation of funds to Obama’s cancun vacation been working out for ya?

    http://news.yahoo.com/pilots-fiery-navy-jet-crash-faced-tough-choices-122302498.html

  • Call me Lennie

    @ Danny L

    I was simply referring to the casualties involved in taking Kyushu, the smallest and second least populated of the four main home islands of Japan. If you take the casualty ratios of other main battles of the Pacific War, it would have cost the US 350,000 casualties to kill off 700,000 Japanese defenders, at a minimum — with 80 to 100 thousand dead

    But here is a catch that nobody ever talks about. The Japanese had assembled 5000 kamikaze planes to defend Kyushu. At Okinawa 1900 kamikaze planes caused over 5000 deaths, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the carnage that the kamikazes on Kyushu could have caused. First, the kamikazes at Okinawa arrived after the troop ships had departed from the scene. That’s significant, because troopships were simply thin skinned Liberty ships with 3000 men stuffed like sardines inside the hold. One kamikaze plane exploding inside the hold kills everybody.

    Moreover, because of the distance of Okinawa from the home islands only a few hundred kamikazes could attack at one time. And yet 14% of the planes scored hits, killing 5000 sailors. Now what would have happened if 5000 kamikazes attacked the Kyushu invasion fleet all at once, specifically targeting the troopships. If only 3% of this group strikes a troopship, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dead Americans even before anyone hits the beach. I’m sure this was on military’s mind when they decided to drop the bomb

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Call me Lennie — I had no idea (not being much of a military historian). Thanks so much for that info.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Black Jack Pershing made a similar decision. The Europeans were telling our Dough Boys to go charge some machine guns and get ourselves killed. Black Jack Pershing decided to do things the smart way: the sun Tzu way.

    America is only America if you fight a war and become more powerful afterwards. Not more in debt. Not economically devastated. Europe is Europe because whenever they fight a war, they make everybody debt slaves because of it, even if they win. That’s what they envy about America, that the US always seems to have ever ready flows of cash for warfare purposes.

    Of course, after Obama, that may no longer be the case. Especially if he helps out the Arab allies of his in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Call me Lennie

    Well Bookie, my scenario about the kamikazes is pure speculation, but it’s based on the fact that Japan did have 5000 kamikazes amassed for the defense of Kyushu, and they certainly would have used them.  Moreover, soldiers in troopships would have been helpless against air attack as they would have needed to mass perhaps 100 of them perhaps 20 miles out to see.  Thankfully, in all previous amphibious operations we had complete control of the air. And then it’s a matter of speculating as to how the Japanese High Command would have used their asset

     In previous battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the idea was basically to concede that the territory would be lost and to concentrate on making the battle as costly as possible in order to deter America from considering invading the home islands.  And I think my scenario is one of the strategies they would have adopted

  • Mike Devx

    I think your scenario is accurate, Call Me Lennie.

    The estimates I’ve read were that our invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would have resulted in over two million Japanese deaths and hundreds of thousands of American soldier deaths.  A daunting proposition, but we were moving forward with the invasion plans anyway.

    It can be argued that the dropping of two atomic bombs actually saved millions of lives.
     

  • Mike Devx

    Book says:
    I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our ultimate goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

    Happy Easter to all!  “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

    I’ve never been overseas.  I think late this year, when I will have time for a vacation, that a vacation trip to Israel sounds fantastic.  My first overseas trip.  There will be so much to see.  

    Most importantly for me, I will be economically supporting one of my four favorite countries outside the U.S.A, and by spending time there, physically supporting Israel, too.  Sounds good to me.

    (My favorite four countries: Israel, Australia, Germany, Canada.  They all have their problems, of course, but who doesn’t?  Heck, none of them have elected a leader as horrifyingly wrong in so many economic and political ways as Obama!  You can say that much at least for them.)   I wish I could include England on my list, but I can’t find enough strengths there to act as countervailing influences against England’s many current weaknesses.)

     

  • Gringo

    Regarding dropping the bomb on Japan, one of the best passages on that issues comes from Louise Steinman’s book The Souvenir: A Daughter Discusses her Father’s War.
     
              “During my visit to Japan, I met Japanese who (unlike Soji) had lived through the war years. They shocked me when they offered me their opinion that the atomic bomb had been necessary to end the war, that the military government would have urged them to mass suicide if the conflagration of Hiroshima hadn’t happened.” Page 140  ( page 121 online)
     
    Let us hope this  passage gets wider circulation.
     
     http://tinyurl.com/The-Souvenir

  • ATurner

    I am a Jew living in Israel and I disagree with your view on the morality of the story of passover. I also don’t think your comparison of this story to the Japanese and the Nazis is at all accurate.
    I think it is a fair to say that young children, regardless of nationality or religion, do not deserve to die for the actions of their parents or regime. The child has never chose to act immorally and therefore has done nothing to deserve death. Yes, it is often the case that children must suffer the consequences of their parents or leaders, but this is out of necessity or lack of a better option. We can all admit that as much as war is terrible, it is often necessary. Imagine if the United States had a weapon that could wipe out only the leaders of Japan and neutralize all of their army’s capabilities, without harming any civilians. But if instead of using this weapon the US still used their nukes, then this would of course be considered extremely immoral and cruel.
    Hadn’t god hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the Jewish people would have been set free. Instead god forced him to not let the Jews out, infringing on his free will. As a result, the entire nation, including the innocent babies, went through terrible pain and misery for something that they had absolutely no control over. On top of that, there are too many ways that god could have punished the wrong doers without harming the innocent. After all, he is GOD. But apparently that just wouldn’t have been a good enough story. Every last first-born including innocent infants, who’s only crime was to happen to be born in the wrong place and time had to die. Is this what you call a lesson in morality? Is this justice? “This reasoning is silly. There’s a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.” – This is not the purpose of the ten plagues. It explicitly states that Pharaoh couldn’t tolerate the suffering anymore and would have let the Jews out if it weren’t for god hardening his heart.
    What does this teach us about morality? This could easily be misrepresent as justification for  the killing of children as a punishment for oppression. If the slaves in the united states would protest their oppression by going after white American babies and murdering them in the streets, would that ever be considered a moral act? What about gathering up all the Nazi infants and slaying them for the acts of their parents? These acts would be considered despicable acts of cruelty. When Palestinians kill babies in retaliation for what they consider to be oppression by Israel, we look at it with disgust and contempt. We recognize the value of human life and that is why we try to avoid killing civilians and children as much as possible.
    I’ll stop ranting now. Please pardon my grammar :)
    Also, this video may express what I’m trying to say a bit better: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dx7irFN2gdI
    Please note that I don’t agree with the Rabbi’s conclusion regarding god switching sides. I do however think that if there is a god, he definitely has a twisted sense of what is fair and just. This can easily be seen throughout the bible, which is riddled with genocide, murder and hatred towards our fellow people and living creatures – http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/atrocity.html