Saturday, January 9, 2016

Torah Portion of the Week: Exodus Vaera. The Torah teaches about the strategy of negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses,

We are living in a time of great negotiations. We have watched with anxiety recent negotiations between the United States and its allies with Iran over nuclear weapons. The president recently concluded negotiations over climate control with the world’s nations. Just getting combatant nations in the middle east together to discuss a cessation of hostilities in Syria seems like an impossible task. Then there was the Asian Pacific Trade Agreement. European nations negotiated with Greece over its debt to the EU, and, finally, the negotiations within the EU over how to handle the flow of refugees into Europe from war torn Middle Eastern Countries. Negotiators will tell us that getting to an agreement sometimes requires divine intervention. 

The Torah portion this week narrates a classic case of negotiations between Pharaoh and God’s instruments of his divine will Moses and Aaron. The portion consists of a kind of record, in Scriptural terms, of the negotiations under which Moses compels Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from their 400 year bondage and Pharaoh becomes increasingly embittered and fearful of the consequences of the plagues brought down upon Egypt. What is fascinating about this account is how the Torah describes each party’s part in the negotiations, God establishes his credentials with Moses and Aaron as the same God who promised to their people’s ancestral patriarchs the land of Canaan. Then God was known as El Shaddai or God Almighty. Now God tells Moses and Aaron that God’s name is Adonai. 

Moses shares his trepidations that the Israelites might not believe in him since he is a man of uncircumcised lip or most likely a speech defect. When it comes to Pharaoh, we have the most interesting person in this narrative.The Torah shows his public side as the God figure of Egypt. Yet the text says several times that God hardens the heart of Pharaoh which is a metaphor that he becomes more stubborn and self destructive each time that Moses demonstrates his God given powers to bring forth plagues. Privately Pharaoh sees that strength and fears it. While his heart is hardened with pride and his belief in his own infallibility, he can see the superior power of Moses’ God and the mighty plagues which his own magicians cannot overcome.

Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “I have sinned this time; the lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked.” Even though he knows he is on the wrong side and that the Israelite God is God and that he has been the cause of great suffering on his people, he cannot let go of his pride or his position of power. He says, “I have sinned.” We can feel Pharaoh’s inner conflict which comprises the unresolved crisis of confidence, faith and real politick. He knows that if he gives in it will be viewed as a sign of great weakness. So he is, in a sense, boxed in politically.There is no other way for this story to work out except for the devastating final plague of the death of the first  born. That plague and all the rest of the plagues gave him enough cover to send them free in order to protect Egypt. 

That is what always makes a negotiation difficult. It is about contending with those who are watching for the symbolic victory and for the show of strength. There are hard liners on all sides pressuring the negotiators to get the deal that gives them the victory. The idea of win-win is a defeat for the hardliners. Furthermore the Torah tells us that personal issues always play a role in a negotiation. The character of one party and the individual integrity of the parties is always an important component.

Today the art of compromise or as some experts call it ‘getting to yes,’ is the standard goal in business or intra government negotiations. Yet beneath it all it is about personal issues. It is never just business. The personal element of how to negotiate and who has the leverage interweaves with the negotiator’s personality and with the business of the negotiations. Pharaoh taught us that lesson. Even at Temple or in other non-profit volunteer institutions conflicts arise that call for negotiated settlements. There too pride and hardened hearts can exacerbate long time relationships and impact the future of the institution itself.
This month, for example,  we shall commemorate Martin Luther King’s life and there too we see a similar kind of power negotiation that the civil rights movement engaged in with local and state authorities, particularly but not exclusively in the South. Entrenched power circles do not give up power even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. That is the same lesson from Pharaoh.   We know that Moses is afraid that he is not a worthy spokesperson for his people or for God, yet, he follows his orders. His effectiveness is that stays on track and is true to his principles. He knows he is God’s instrument and this negotiation is not about him as compared to Pharaoh who believes it is only about him!


Pharaoh’s main problem is his internal struggle to always be infallible or be right all the time. His public dilemma is playing to his constituents. In that way he is a captive of his own fears. Do not think for a moment that world leaders do not contend with the same internal or personal demons when they sit down at  the negotiation table with other world leaders. 
Life is not that different with negotiations even in the life of a temple or non-profit organization. As I have said about Temple, “it is always personal.” Yet, I believe that the story of this negotiation teaches us that conflict resolution demands that we take the moral high ground if we want to secure a long term solution to a problem. Conflict resolution means remembering why we are involved in a discussion. Furthermore staying focused on the  real purpose of  trying to resolve a conflict is key in balancing the short term and longterm objectives. 
This is why Moses succeed and why Pharaoh failed. The other  lesson is that it does make a difference to have God on our sides after all!

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

Norm Levy said...

Rabbi Bloom,

Encouraging thought about "meaningful negotiation" and "compromise" Is indeed relevant at these perilous times in the world. However, it seems to me that the "the Pharoah versus Moses "negotiation " is NOT a particularly good example. Pharoah, as ruler of Egypt,was surely not interested in "negotiation" with a presumed representative of an enslaved under group. What produced "action" was proof that Moses was supported by proven divine POWER... not too much room for negotiation after Pharoah noted that Mose was not kidding.

Separate subject. You might find it amusing to check out www.rhymes4ourtimes.com or Twitter @rhymes4ourtimes where I serve up short, rhymed social commentary based on REAL news headlines. I now have over 8,000 Twitter followers.

Norm Levy