Saturday 13th January 2024 3rd Shevat 5784
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24, 2 Kings 4:1 – 37; Luke 17:28 - 37
As a rabbi, I am occasionally called upon to help resolve marital issues, family disputes, and disagreements between business partners. Through many years of navigating these types of disputes I have noticed a fascinating phenomenon: Most fights that people engage in – especially when it comes to family issues – have little to do with the stated reason for the dispute.
Studies have also shown that most interpersonal problems can be traced to a personal resentment stemming from underlying control issues. The warring parties camouflage their fight to be in control by choosing battlegrounds that seem like credible disputes; political hot button issues, religious observance, the spouse’s family, their children’s education or discipline, and other seemingly “righteous” arguments.
In reality, they resent feeling that they are being controlled and are often just looking for their “voice” to be heard. When someone feels diminished, they seek a pretext to express their displeasure or resentment toward the other person and they often utilize a “legitimate” concern to portray the underlying disagreement.
Nobody likes the feeling of being controlled. We do what we can to avoid having controlling personalities in our lives because we naturally want to feel independent. We can trace this core value of independence back to the very first man, Adam.
On the day he was created, Adam was given one commandment: do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. He had one job – and failed. Man has a stubborn streak that desires independence; it is, after all, the source of our freewill (“You’re not the boss of me!”).
By sinning and eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam actually affirmed his independence. But independence comes with a price; the downside to that decision was that Adam disconnected from the Almighty – he became mortal – and got thrown out of the Garden of Eden.
Interestingly enough, this very desire for independence through exercising freewill can also lead one to try and manage every aspect of one’s life and be in control of it. This gives a person the feeling that he is independent and in control of his own life. Unfortunately, this can lead a person to becoming a controlling personality.
Once, when I was in synagogue, I saw a needy person approach someone to ask for a few dollars. The man pulled out a five-dollar bill from his pocket and asked if the beggar had change. He nodded in the affirmative and asked him how much change he wanted. The man said, “Give me five singles.” The beggar gave him five singles, at which point the man handed him back two.
I looked on with some bewilderment. I wondered why the man hadn’t just asked for three dollars in change. Why did he need to get five singles back and then hand him two dollars?
I then realized that’s how a controlling person behaves. He wanted to take back his five singles so that he could be the one doing the act of charity. Even though the end result was the same (either way the beggar ends up with two dollars), he needed to be in control of the entire interaction; he needed to feel like a giver by emphasizing that he was giving two dollars and not just receiving three dollars in change.
There is a classic medieval work of Biblical commentary known as the Yalkut Shimoni. It has been dated to about a thousand years ago and it is a compilation of older midrashic and aggadic interpretations and explanations of Biblical passages, arranged according to the order of the Torah portions to which they refer.
Because these interpretations are non-legalistic exegeses of the Torah, there is sometimes a tendency to dismiss teachings from the midrash and agaddah as simplistic folklore or fantastic legends and not scholarly works. This is a mistake. These collected wisdoms of Jewish sages over the millennia are filled with deep insights and are meant to illuminate passages in the Torah and give context as to what is taking place.
In this week’s Torah reading we find Moses and his brother Aaron appearing in front of Pharaoh:
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and they did as the Almighty had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants and it became a serpent. Pharaoh called his wise men and sorcerers, and the magicians of Egypt too did so with their enchantments; each one threw down his staff and they became serpents. But the staff of Aaron swallowed their staffs. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and would not listen to them [...] (Exodus 7:10-13).
Regarding this last verse, the one that discusses the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, we find the following illuminating homiletic tale in the Yalkut Shimoni on this week’s Torah portion (Yalkut 182:2): A lion and a variety of animals, including a fox, were on a ship. The ship comes to a toll where a donkey was the dock master in charge of collecting the taxes from all the vessels.
The donkey demands that the lion’s ship pay the toll as well. The fox protests, “What impudence! Do you not see that the king of all the animals is among us! How dare you ask us to pay the toll?” The donkey retorts defiantly, “I am only collecting the tax to bring it to the king’s treasury!” He insists on it being paid.
At this point, the lion asks that the ship be brought closer to the dock. He then leaps from the ship and kills the donkey. He throws the carcass of the donkey to the fox and asks him to carve it up into pieces. The fox does so, but upon seeing the heart of the donkey he gobbles it up. The lion comes to see how the fox carved up the donkey and sees that the heart is missing. “Where is this fool’s heart?” asks the lion. The fox replies, “My master the king, if this donkey would have had a heart would he have demanded that the king pay the toll?”
So too, says this midrash, if Pharaoh would have had a heart, he would not have defied the Almighty, the King of all kings, and refused to free the Jewish nation. The heart is generally understood to be the seat of the trait of understanding. In fact, when King Solomon ascends the throne, he doesn’t ask God for long life or monetary wealth. Instead, he prays, “Therefore give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and bad […]” (I Kings 3:9).
The midrash concludes that Pharaoh is the donkey, and ultimately, he gets punished for defying the sovereignty of the Almighty.
But this midrash is difficult to understand. The Talmud (Sukkah 30a) relates a similar instance of a king coming to toll. A king was traveling in his kingdom and came to a toll road. He ordered his servants to pay the toll. The servants asked him, “Why are you paying the tax when all the proceeds from tolls belong to you anyway?” The king responded that if someone sees him not paying the toll others might learn from him that it is acceptable not to pay it. Therefore, he wanted to pay it.
In this instance the king makes it clear that the right thing to do is to pay the toll; it even seems necessary that the king pay the toll. Why then, in our midrash did the lion kill the donkey for his impertinence?
As mentioned, most disputes are about control. The Talmud is saying that, of course, the king can decide if he wants to pay the toll. If he has a valid reason to pay the tax he will do so because he can do whatever he wants.
The midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, however, faults the donkey for trying to control the interaction with the king of the animals. He is trying to exert his own control by saying that he has to collect the tax in order to give it back to the king. The fact that he has the impudence to demand the tax from the king means that he doesn’t really submit to the fact that the king is the one to decide whether or not he wants to pay the tax. The donkey wants to be in control. For that, he deserves to be put to death.
The same is true for Pharaoh. Even though he somewhat acknowledges that he has to submit to the will of God, he constantly tries to control the circumstances by placing conditions on how the Jewish people are to serve God. Of course, by trying to exert his own influence he demonstrated that he isn’t really submitting to the will of the Almighty.
Just as the donkey who tried to exert control by forcing the king to remit his own taxes paid for his impudence with his life, so too Pharaoh brought destruction upon himself and his country.
Maintaining mutual respect and open communication forms the bedrock to sidestep control issues in relationships. Embrace and employ compromise; finding a middle ground ensures that both voices are heard. Learning to appreciate individual growth and interests can nurture a feeling of independence within the relationship. Avoid power struggles by valuing other’s perspectives and decisions.
Cultivate empathy – understanding another person’s needs and emotions often deters one’s personal need for control, and reinforces the foundation of a healthy, control-free relationship.