One of my childrenâ€™s favorite songs for Passover isÂ Pharoah in Pajamas in the Middle of the Night, a simple repetitive tune highlighting Pharoahâ€™s frantic search for Moses on the night of Egyptâ€™s plague of the firstborn. Iâ€™ve heard renditions of the song in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish â€” evidence of its popularity in our circles.
A firm foundation for this tuneâ€™s sentiment can be found in G-dâ€™s instructions to recount the story of the Exodus to our children (Ex. 10:2): â€œin order that you tell over into the ears of your child, and your childâ€™s child that I made a mockery of Egypt.â€ I hope my children will forgive me, but Iâ€™ve always been uncomfortable with the tune and the idea of making a mockery of Pharoah and Egypt. The conduct of Pharoah and his people was unquestionably evil, but why do we lower ourselves to portray them as the laughingstock of the Exodus? Furthermore, why would G-d laugh at Pharoah? I would think that Egyptâ€™s record of unconscionable abuse of the Jewish people, and obstinate refusal to accept G-dâ€™s authority over nature â€” as displayed in the plagues â€” would be more of a tragedy than a comedy.
Humor, by definition, is an expression of nonsense. A joke often injects nonsense into reality for but a moment, and the surprising discovery that weâ€™ve confused the real with the ridiculous makes us laugh. At the same time, would it not be tragic for one to live thinking that nonsense is true, that the imaginedÂ isÂ reality?
Pharoahâ€™s behavior was the tragic result of confusing the real and the ridiculous. His actions and dialogue with Moses defied all reason. Egypt was hit by a plague, Pharoah promised to let the Jews go, the plague ended, and Pharoah changed his mind. This cycle repeated ten times: plague, deal, plague ends, no deal. Itâ€™s like the guy who reads the back of the shampoo bottle â€” â€œlather, rinse, repeatâ€ â€” and still hasnâ€™t left the shower!Â (credit to Bill Engvall for the metaphor). His reactions were nonsensical, and therein lied the tragedy. When Pharoah acted like a clown, he and his people suffered the deadly consequences.
Weâ€™re instructed to repeat this lesson in the ears of our children, through every generation, because man commonly displays the same comical, yet tragic, behavior. When are we inspired to turn to G-d? When weâ€™re faced with problems. We take the necessary action, we pray, G-d takes away the problems â€” and we sadly go on living uninspired. The cycle plays out again and again: difficulty, prayer, He helps, we forget about Him. Before we laugh and sing about Pharoah in his pajamas, consider that the joke is on us â€” if we keep this up. May we all be motivated to remove the comedy from the script, and begin writing our stories of success!Â (Based onÂ Taam Vâ€™Daas).
I understand your point of view – it is very reasonable. Nevertheless we try to gain our children’s attention by all means possible. Of course this is not the right way ,in contrast with the ortodox teaching. But for those who are not orthodox it is not easy to attract the children”s attention and any way is valid as long as they listen.
Thanks for commenting. I guess your point is that if your goal is to attract children to Judaism then one can use methods that might contradict Judaism because the end result of kindling an interest in Judaism that wasn’t there before will justify the means. I understand that, and there is some basis for such an approach in Judaism. Such actions, though, would need to be done with the careful guidance of an expert in Jewish law. It’s kind of like changing medications without the guidance of a Doctor. You don’t know what the side effects of distorting the medical regimen will be until its too late. It seems to me that one can be creative enough within the guidelines of Torah true teachings and values and still find ways to attract people to their heritage.
…and for the record, singing the song is fine. The above piece only shows that there’s an important lesson to be taken from the humor.
Rabbi, may I respectfully suggest that much humor is based on irony. In that context, perhaps it makes more sense to see Egypt as a laughingstock.
You’re welcome to suggest it, but I don’t think we’re seeing things differently. Irony is the conceptual grouping of polar opposites, which is what occurred in Egypt when a world leader acted like a clown. For someone of Pharoah’s stature to act like a clown is a serious tragedy.
The sad fact is that this comedy is not funny. I took a class in high school about comedy. At the end of the class the teacher asked us what comedy was. We could not explain it. Is it really funny when we laugh when someone falls down? What is it really when someone laughs? It is a reaction that is difficult to understand.
The truth of reality is that we bring our downfall on ourselves. We are to blame for our own problems. It is true today as it was in Egypt. Moses realized that we became slaves because we fought with each other, just as the two men fought with each other when he confronted them. Moses also realized that we became slaves because there were informers among us who spread the news that he killed the Egyptian slavemaster. The Midrash relates that Shalomit was raped by the same Egyptian slavemaster and the two Jewish men were arguing about it. Her husband wanted to divorce her, and the other man did not think that her husband should. Perhaps she should have been more careful, however it is interesting that a woman was the cause of it.
In any case the situation today is just as sad. There is way too much gossip and slander in the world. Jews should be quiet and behave themselves instead of causing trouble. One false rumor becomes a tremendous source of hatred. These are the lies that bring about our downfall. We are supposed to be the head of the nations and not the tail as we are now. In other words we bring the trouble on ourselves.
We have thousands of rabbi’s that are supposed to set an example for us to follow. They are supposed to teach us to keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, study the Torah and follow it, obey the 613 mitzvot, etc. Where are they? They can’t even agree that the Torah is true and was written by Moses as dictated by HaShem. This is not funny, it is a tragedy. The Knesset is Israel is led by Jews who are unable to agree on even the basic principles of settling the land according to the borders given in the Torah. The so-called “Palestinians” don’t belong there. This is basic Judaism. If the non-Jews living in Israel are unwilling to live in peace, they should be asked to leave. If they don’t leave on their own, they should be deported. It is simple. The rest of the world does not really care about these people, and they are not going to do anything about it. The Syrians have killed over 60,000 of their own people and the rest of the world does not lift a finger to stop it even if they could. It is all talk and no action. No one is going to go into Syria to help these people. The United Nations has not even spoken out about it.
We as Jews are to blame. We continue to sin and this is the root of all evil. If we had a real Temple on Mount Moriah these things would not happen. I will speak out about it and I dare you to disagree with me. I am the reason these things happen and I know it. Will you help me? Or will you continue to complain? Most of us have it very good. We can still walk and feed ourselves. Some people are unable to even these basic things. This is not funny, it is tragic. It is certainly not what HaShem wants from us. He gave us a mouth to use for good things, and most people only complain and cause trouble. I suggest you take a good look in the mirror and change yourselves. Let’s make the world a better place and not continue to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Do it now!
Todah Rabbah for this, for me, brilliant insight. At first, when i read about the song i thought, wouldn’t the grandchildren like to sing this as Pesach? I don’t know the tune but hamishpucha sheli is musical, so we could make one up. AND then i read on and ken – atah nachon (you are correct). It’s a comical image when there wasn’t much to be comical about. So again, thank you. And, by the way, I totally enjoyed the shampoo, rinse and repeat. Great. Shabbat Shalom.
Considering that this song is used in NURSERY, for LITTLE CHILDREN, it would behoove the author to seriously lighten up. It is this tendentious approach to yiddishkeit which is causing more and more people to turn away from Judaism.
Why don’t you focus your efforts somewhere worthwhile – where it doesn’t involve attacking nursery children and their teachers.
Gam Ani, Thanks for posting your comments. Your point is well taken – nursery songs are not a proper target for criticism. At the same time, perhaps you misunderstood the piece. I actually brought support to the sentiment of the song from classic sources and the message of the piece addressed the tragedy within humor, not the song per se. The song was only used as an example that would grab your attention and to lighten up the lesson (which is ironic considering your point). I regret that this message was not communicated well.
Thanks for your reply. Yes – definitely ironic that the intent of the message actually (at least in my case) caused the exact opposite. I think that the other comments seem to prove my concern as well.
There are very tangible issues which require evaluation and critical analysis in ourselves and our communities – perhaps with a more pointed approach to specific issues, the message would be clearer (and would avoid some very misguided, misogynistic and dividing comments from others).
Thanks for the followup. A more pointed approach might have helped. The ultimate lesson of the all too common vicious cycle of flimsy commitment we experience I believe is a critical one for ourselves and our communities.