One of the sad ironies of leadership is that leaders frequently come to believe the lies they tell and then make “reasoned” decisions based on those lies, often with disastrous results. As rulers of all sorts trick us by manipulating with such powerful emotions, such as our fear of strangers and our worry for our security, they, too, are tricked. They come to believe their own tales, get entangled in their lies. Terrible things happen, suffering increases, and policies built on lies lead, all too often, to disgrace, dishonor and defeat.
In the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus), which we begin to read this Shabbat morning, we see the disastrous results of a policy built on lies. We read how the pharaohs of Egypt manipulated public opinion to support the oppression and enslavement of our ancestors, and how this policy eventually lead to the defeat of Egypt, the shattering of her economy and the destruction of her armed forces. The understanding that leaders can be caught in their own lies helps us understand the biblical expression for pharaonic stubbornness , “his heart was hardened,” and serves as an object lesson for all those who find themselves in positions of leadership and power.
The Egyptian pharaoh’s encounter with the two midwives sent to deliver obstetric care to the women of the enslaved Israelites illustrates this sad irony and foreshadows the stubbornness of the Egyptian leadership that eventually will lead to disaster. Here the Bible shows us how a leader can be so convinced of his own lies, that he can believe the unbelievable and make decisions based on his own falsehoods.
To convince his people to support his policy to enslave our ancestors with the lie that they could be a possible fifth column in the time of war, he focused on their numbers and strength (Exodus 1:8-11). When oppression and heavy labor did not weaken our people, the Egyptians’ fear grew (Exodus 1:12). The pharaoh increased our ancestors’ workload (Exodus 1:13-14) and embarked on a policy of ethnic cleansing (Exodus 1:15 ff).
To reduce the number of Israelites and to promote their eventual assimilation into Egyptian society, the Egyptian ruler ordered two midwives serving our ancestors, Shifra and Pu’ah, to kill every Israelite baby boy but let the baby girls live. The midwives refused to do what the pharaoh asked, so were summoned once again to the kings presence.
When asked to explain their actions, Shifra and Pu’ah responded by saying that the Hebrew women, unlike the Egyptian women, were so strong that they did not need the services of a midwife (Exodus 1:19). Surprisingly, the Egyptian king accepts their explanation. He has become so convinced of the superhuman strength of the Israelites, that the statement that their women, unlike women everywhere else, give birth without assistance seems reasonable. In his mind the midwives’ statement reinforces his bias against our ancestors.
Later in the Book of Exodus, we will see the disastrous effects of these views for the people of Egypt and for its army. Having come to believe their own propaganda, the Egyptian king and his advisors will risk all and lose all in their attempt to maintain their enslavement of our “dangerous” Israelite ancestors.
Falsehoods seem to take on a life of their own. When a leader, such as the Egyptian pharaoh, bases policy on a lie, the leader not only commits himself to maintain the lie, but can actually come to believe it. The danger, as so well illustrated in the Book of Exodus, is that such a belief encourages us to accept the incredible and build a policy on a foundation of shifting sands of falsehood that, sooner or later, will collapse beneath us with terrible effects.