Ethics @ Work: Pharaonic ethics [pg. 17]

April 13, 2006 23:39
3 minute read.


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Lately I encounter more and more requests to relate in my columns and lectures to "political ethics," the ethical principles that apply to elected representatives. I approach this topic gingerly; on the one hand, it does fall squarely into the area of professional ethics since politics is, after all, a job. On the other hand, it's not a regular job, and while I aspire to someday participate in the creation of a code of ethics for elected representatives, it's certainly a daunting task. In the holiday spirit, I would like to begin my foray into this fascinating area of business ethics by examining the unique leadership style of Pharaoh. While Pharaoh is often viewed as the paradigm of the hostile and wicked leader, a closer examination of the Biblical account and the Haggadah reveals a more complex picture. We find for example that the Haggadah compares Pharaoh favorably to our dear father Laban, "for Pharaoh only decreed against the males, while Laban sought to uproot all." (Though this is certainly very faint praise.) In fact, the Pharaoh of the Exodus displays many desirable leadership characteristics. One thing we notice immediately is that he is a very accessible leader. His predecessor was so aloof that even the great Joseph could not approach him directly, but had to obsequiously ask others to make a request on his behalf. "And Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying: If I have found favor in your eyes, please speak to Pharaoh on my behalf." But "our" Pharaoh has an open door to his people. We first find him speaking to "his people," about the Egyptian demographic problem (more on this later). We then find him easily accessible to the Hebrew midwives, to the Hebrew taskmasters, to his advisers, and even to those annoying Levites - Moses and Aaron. At the Red Sea, we find that he prepared his own chariot and personally led the Egyptians into battle. A related quality we can discern is that Pharaoh's concern is generally for the Egyptian people as a whole, not for his own personal glory. He is concerned that the children of Israel may rebel and leave Egypt (according to the sages of the Talmud, his actual concern was that they would expel the Egyptians), not that they would undermine his personal authority. And despite the stereotype that the Hebrew slaves built the pyramids, which were monuments to the monarchs, Scripture relates that the people actually "built storehouse cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Raamses," which presumably benefited the population as a whole. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh was personally spared being killed in the plagues, "in order to show you My might, and to recount My name in all the land." Evidently, some exemplary personal qualities convinced the Almighty that he would be a worthy and faithful witness to the lessons of the Exodus. It goes without saying that Pharaoh also had his flaws as a leader. His main problem was stubbornness and cruelty. Time after time, he "hardened his heart" and this blinded him to his instinctive concern for the welfare of Egypt. At one stage, his advisers had to somewhat pointedly prod him, "Don't you know yet that Egypt is being destroyed?" (The criticism implies a hidden compliment - Pharaoh's advisers were not yes-men but actually served as an effective foil to the monarch.) Pharaoh's other problem was his inability to come to grips with the "demographic problem" facing Egypt - namely the frightening natural increase of the children of Israel. Pharaoh had basically two possible legitimate approaches. One, he could consider the Israelites as equal citizens of the Egyptian republic, by granting them equivalent rights, or some kind of autonomy. Alternatively, he could acknowledge that the children of Jacob were now an independent nation - in Pharaoh's own words, "the people of the children of Israel." This would oblige him to consider them resident aliens and grant them full freedom to seek their own destiny in their own land. Instead, Pharaoh tried to keep the children inside Egypt, but as a subject people. Every year for some three millennia we retell the Exodus story and explain to ourselves and to the whole world that this is not a sustainable approach to ethnic diversity, and somehow it seems that this message never loses its relevance for the monarchs of the world. The writer is research director at the Business Ethic Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He also is a rabbi.

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