When God commanded Moshe to approach Pharaoh and warn him about the impending plague of blood, He specified that Moshe should confront Pharaoh “in the morning,” when Pharaoh was “going to the water” (7:15). Rashi, citing from the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 9:8), famously explains that Pharaoh arose early in the morning each day to secretly perform his bodily functions in the river. The Egyptian king claimed to have divine qualities, and told his subjects that he was a deity of sorts. He therefore needed to perform his bodily functions just once each day – early in the morning, before anybody was present to observe him – lest anyone recognize that he was human.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz is cited as having noted the significance of the fact that Pharaoh, according to the Midrash’s description, subjected himself to considerable discomfort – relieving himself just once a day – in order to project this image. Although it was not critically important that people viewed him as a divine being, he nevertheless felt that this image was important enough to warrant the discomfort of restraining himself the rest of the day.
As it so often does, the Midrash here depicts an extreme model that exemplifies a more moderate, and very common, characteristic. We are all capable – and likely guilty, to one extent or another – of the same kind of behavior which the Midrash attributes to Pharaoh, namely, going to exaggerated lengths in order to project a certain image and bring ourselves honor and admiration. Some people, for example, take on excessive workloads, beyond that which they need for their livelihood, so they could earn enough money to impress their neighbors and peers. More generally, many people feel pressured to conduct themselves in a manner which does not necessarily suit their personality, or engage in activities which they dislike, solely for the sake of their reputation and to earn other people’s esteem. Like Pharaoh, we are well-aware that we are human, that we are flawed and far from perfect, but we desperately try to project an impressive image, and to that end we are prepared to make our lives difficult and subject ourselves to a great deal of pressure.
The Midrash’s amusing depiction of Pharaoh warns us against this natural tendency. It reminds us not to compromise our own happiness and satisfaction for the sake of winning the respect and admiration of our peers, and to instead live the life that best suits us without overly concerning ourselves with what other people think of us.