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Beshalach 5781 ~ Jan. 29, 2021

If you were to deliver a eulogy for Pharaoh what might it be? Many years ago, I was asked a similar type of question for a Jewish mobster in Detroit. At that moment, the rabbi asking used it as a teachable moment to teach me the concept of Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good in others. He told me about the Jewish head of the mob in Detroit who he had recently buried. What does one say for such a person? He spoke of his filling of trucks with shoes, boots and coats and on Christmas Day would have them in the poorest sections of Detroit and simply hand them out to the poorest of the city for the winter.

So, what is our tradition’s eulogy for Pharaoh? Our Torah reading for this Shabbat provides us with a song as a eulogy…which mostly praises God – Az Yashir Moshe u’veneh Yisrael, and Moses and the Children of Israel sang the song about G-d as a military genius who defeated Pharaoh’s chariots at the Sea. You know the important parts of that song – Mi Chamocha ba-elim Adonai, and Hashem Yimloch Le-olam Va’Ed. Moses’s song actually reminds us of an important concept – that just as G-d was able to redeem the Children of Israel back then, He has the ability to perform that same geulah, redemption, at any point in time when we need it – when we are sick, when our lives turn for the worse, or when there is some horrific event in our world.  

Miriam and the women followed with their song, and I believe that they understood best what to say: “Let’s stop with that long song of the men; here is Pharaoh’s swan song – ‘his chariots drowned in the Sea.’” That says it all. And as the joke goes, “Now let’s eat.”  What Miriam and the women were singing was “You had all of our males thrown into the Nile, remember what Moses first said to you…he only told you about one of the plagues…your firstborn would suffer that same consequence…and with you, Pharaoh, drowning in the bottom of the sea, you were the last of the firstborn.” 

Our rabbis had a much softer heart for Pharaoh.  They noticed that Pharaoh is not mentioned as having drowned in the sea, only his chariots, so they rewrote his story and his eulogy. They suggest that just as he got to the sea, Pharaoh repented. He finally got it – and that stubbornness turned to repentance. The rabbis suggest that in some identity switch, Pharaoh becomes the king of the Assyrian town of Ninveh and he was the one who convinces all of the people to repent, most probably during the time of Jonah. Not only that, but the rabbis also add that Pharaoh continues to stand at the gates of the Netherworld, and he reminds the despots of the world of the opportunity they missed to repent…or maybe that they still have the opportunity to repent.

I guess you realize that I am neither a fan of the words of Moses or Miriam; singing every day that Pharaoh’s army drowned just doesn’t do it for me. Nor am I enamored with the softer touch of the rabbis.  Hakarat Hatov…finding the good in another at time of death is a Jewish value.

If you would permit me though, one more thought…this is Hakarot Hatov at its best. A while back I officiated at the service of a 36-year-old mother whose daughter I named two years earlier. There is one lesson from her life about finding good in others that I want you to remember. It seems that Carrie loved to go up to the cashier when she was buying something of only a dollar or two and ask if she could pay in all pennies. Her friends asked her why? She responded, because it always starts a conversation and I always gain a new friend. Hakarat hatov, not only happens when someone passes away, but in every moment of life. 

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782