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The Wise King of Nineveh

02/06/2020 05:28:11 PM


Rabbi Weill

Dear Friends,


An Egyptian stands at the edge of the sea, watching his countrymen drown in its waters. He grieves for the dead firstborn, including in his own family.

He hears the Israelites singing. “Mi chamocha ba’elim, Adonai? Who is like you among the gods, Eternal God?” And this Egyptian, nurtured in the culture of idolatry, responds to the Israelites with a whisper, “Mi kamocha nedar ba’kodesh? Who is like You, awesome in holiness?”

In this midrash on this week’s Torah portion, B’Shallach, the man now fully and deeply understands that the God of Israel is God, like no other. He shakes his head in awe, and walks, not back into Egypt, but into the desert. He walks far east and finally arrives at Nineveh, massive and full of wickedness.

He tells the Ninevites about the God of Israel, who punished his wicked land. He warns them that their wickedness can lead to ruin. They don’t listen but are impressed by this regal man. They make him their king. 

One day a Hebrew prophet enters Nineveh and calls, “Three more days and Nineveh is destroyed!” This prophet is Jonah. The king would never forget that other Israelite messenger, Moses, who predicted Egypt’s ruin, so he understands Jonah’s threat as genuine. He commands the Ninevites to repent. They do so and are saved. 

The king marvels that the same God who displayed ferocity against Egypt displays boundless compassion toward Nineveh.

Who was this Egyptian, who stood by the sea and whispered “Mi Chamocha,” acknowledging God? Who was this man who came to understand God’s compassion and the truth of repentance?

According to this midrash, this Egyptian was none other than Pharaoh himself. Yes, Pharaoh, whose heart was hard as adamant rock, whose slavish fidelity to idolatry destroyed his people, who committed genocide against slaves, who scorned Moses with “Who is your God that I should listen to him?” That same man became the repenting king of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. 

Our tradition typically understands Pharaoh as beyond repentance. But this midrash takes a different view. The gates of repentance are open always, and to all. As we read this Shabbat about that moment at the sea, may we recall that even the most intransigent hearts – Pharaoh’s, and ours – can recognize this powerful truth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Weill

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781