Parashat Vaeira continues the story of the process of the Exodus from Egypt, after Pharaoh had responded to Moshe’s initial demand that he release Benei Yisrael by increasing the people’s workload. God commanded Moshe to return to Pharaoh and reiterate his demand, and Moshe asked God why he should expect Pharaoh to obey. The Torah says that God replied by speaking to Moshe and Aharon and “commanding them upon the Israelites and upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt” (6:13).
Rashi, commenting on the phrase, “and upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt,” cites a startling interpretation from the Midrash Tanchuma, explaining that God here commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak to Pharaoh respectfully: “Tzivam…la-chalok lo kavod bi-dvarim” – “He commanded them to extend him honor with their words.” Although Moshe and Aharon were coming to Pharaoh to denounce his evil oppression of Benei Yisrael, and to warn of the devastation that he and his nation would suffer if he refused, they were nevertheless to speak in a respectful, dignified manner, as appropriate when addressing a king.
On one level, this Midrash teaches us of the need to retain our dignity and manners even when rightfully confronting and opposing evil. Often, people who denounce wrongful behavior feel they can – or even must – free themselves from the limits of civil discourse, and speak with unrestrained vitriol and contempt. They feel that the importance of their campaign necessitates venomous rhetoric, as otherwise the message would not be communicated effectively. The Midrash teaches us that even as we oppose real evil, such as a cruel and ruthless tyrant like Pharaoh, we must maintain our dignity, and conduct and express ourselves respectfully. All the more so, when we find ourselves in an ordinary argument or quarrel, we are expected to voice our position with courtesy and dignity, regardless of how certain we are of the correctness of our stance.
The Tolna Rebbe (as cited by Rav David Moshe Braverman) added further insight into the Midrash’s comment, boldly suggesting that it cautions against the all-too-familiar tendency to judge others in absolute terms. Even when Moshe and Aharon were confronting Pharaoh to warn about the severe punishments that would befall him and his kingdom because of the evil they perpetrated, they were to take note of that which called for respect. Even Pharaoh was not entirely evil. He enacted evil decrees for which he was severely punished, but even he had something worth respecting. A fortiori, when dealing with people whom we feel we have reason to dislike, we must refrain from casting judgment upon their entire character. Even people who act improperly, who are guilty of serious misconduct, must not be dismissed as thoroughly bad people. We must be able to condemn that which deserves condemnation and respect that which deserves respect, with an understanding that most – if not all – people have both elements within their beings. We can and should appreciate the goodness a person performs even while strongly disapproving of his wrongful actions. There is no contradiction whatsoever between denouncing the bad and respecting the good, because people are complex creatures, whose overall behavior cannot be summed up in a single adjective. The Midrash therefore states that Moshe and Aharon were to show Pharaoh respect – to impress upon us the need to respect what is respectable about all people, even as we condemn and disapprove of their misconduct.