In a piece written in March, 2010 about Pharaoh as a bully or abuser, I said,

“…an abuser can refuse to allow the demeaned partner – of whom he/she is so critical and belittling – to leave, because to do so is to be faced with the very sense of powerlessness that the abuser fears most. Also, the abuser loses control (or the illusion of it) over the other in the exact moment that the other makes an independent decision. It’s therefore not uncommon for the abused person to hear, ‘You’ll leave when I say you can leave;’ ‘If you leave, I’ll kill you;’…” [1]

I was reminded of this the other day by a newspaper article [2] about the trial of the man accused of killing the mother, brother and nephew of singer Jennifer Hudson. He had been married to her sister, Julia, who testified that the marriage “had crumbled amid [his] cheating.” After they separated in February, 2008, he reportedly threatened to kill her 25 times. The headline of the article quoted him as saying, “If you leave, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill your family first, and then I’ll kill you.”

Why did he threaten 25 times? Why didn’t he simply take action? Because, as an abuser or bully, he felt fundamentally powerless; using threatening words gave him the feeling of power that he otherwise lacked. That feeling was his “high.” The threat to kill her family said that he wanted to inflict great emotional pain on her first, before asserting his final act of control over her as well, because inflicting the pain on her would make him feel “powerful.” His cheating fulfilled the same purpose. Both the “conquest” of a new female, and the pain he was able to inflict on a woman who was repeatedly willing to accept it (the prosecuting attorney brought out that their sexual relationship continued after the separation), similarly gave him the feelings of power that he lacked.

Whatever it was in the final moment that caused him to go beyond words into actions, the actions themselves came from a rage born of a desperate fear that he was losing the illusion of power, forcing him to face the powerlessness he secretly felt. Just as “rape” is about [assertions of] power, not sex, in the perpetrator’s mind, these murders were about assertions of power, not killing. His need to bring his self-image back to a positive balance so utterly overwhelmed him at that moment that he would have been unable to have any concern for consequences or exercise any control over his impulse to kill. To “exercise control” would have made him feel “weak” – powerless – which is actually the fear he was fleeing.

“Anger puts man into a state of temporary madness. While in anger, man loses possession of his rational faculties; his softness, his tenderness, his humanity are overpowered and banished, temporarily, at least. The angry man becomes oblivious of his relationships, of his duties, of the standards of society; he commits acts which in his serene moments he would scorn others for perpetrating.” [3

From this, we can understand tyrants like Pharaoh in the Bible or Duryodhana in the Mahabharata (the epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita forms a small part). Despite their outer appearance of power, they have a fundamental fear that they’re powerless, and a never-ending need to have their power re-affirmed by the subservience of those around them. What’s more, “routine subservience” (e.g. by the courtiers who ordinarily surround a tyrant) is less satisfying than “enforced subservience,” (e.g. by Pharaoh denying and punishing the Israelites who were asking and attempting to leave or by Duryodhana cheating Yudhishthir out of his rightful claim to the throne of India) because the latter feeds the “feeling of power” more than the former. He – or she – feels better when they’re inflicting pain.

They’re not necessarily oblivious to the pain they cause. Any such concern is  simply subordinated to the pleasure they get by satisfying their need to feel powerful. Creating pain gives them a pleasure that discharges or dissolves their inner fear and anxiety, however temporarily.

That “pleasure” can actually become a self-serving “moral justification” for the pain they inflict. In this case, they use rationalization to suppress or deny their own compassion, as, for example, when Timothy McVey casually dismissed the deaths of innocent children in the Oklahoma bombing (his “protest against the government”) as “collateral damage.”

Is it any wonder, then, why Pharaoh couldn’t let the B’nai Yisrael “go”? Or why, the “plagues” – in which Pharaoh is faced with increasing demonstrations of a Power greater than himself – were ineffective? Or why he reneged repeatedly on his agreement to let the people leave? Or why, even after the 10th plague – the death of the Egyptian first-born – Pharaoh pursued the B’nai Yisrael up to the point of completely ignoring any concern for the consequences?

Pharaoh’s fundamental fear — his feeling of powerlessness — made him respond impulsively to any challenge that activated it. He couldn’t have done anything other than he did, without understanding himself a great deal better than he did and cultivating a much more mature wisdom.

He also couldn’t ever comfortably say to himself, “I’m the most powerful person on earth, but there’s a Power greater than me.” Pharaoh’s sense of “power” – and that of any bully, abuser or tyrant – is “all or nothing.” It’s as if they feel, “If there’s anyone or anything more powerful than me, then I’m powerless and worthless.”

“There is a type of person about whom the Sages have said that he who becomes angry is as if he worships idols. This refers to someone who becomes angry at every little thing that others do against his wishes. Such a person loses his power of rational thinking when he loses his temper. If he had the ability, he would destroy the entire world in his anger. His intellect is not at all in control and he behaves like a wild animal. When angry, he is likely to commit all forms of transgressions. His anger is his only motivating factor.” [4]

There’s an “infantile” quality about it, suggesting that perhaps part of their “therapy” could be to learn that while an “incremental” sense of power can be gained by appropriate acts of self-assertion, “power” need never be the ultimate criteria for self-worth.

Could this tell us something about the roots of Anti-Semitism? Doesn’t it seem probable that there’s a link between an individual’s feelings of powerlessness and his rage at those he/she sees as “more powerful” — even when that power-of-the-other (i.e. Jews) is an illusion? Perhaps our persistence through time, despite all the murderous persecution, makes others feel that we have a “power” that scares them?

Could this be a basis of terrorism, as well?

Certainly, it gives us a reason to forgive those who harm us, without endorsing what they do. Their rage is the rage of those who needlessly feel powerless. It’s really not about us at all.  Their pathetic mistake leads to tragedy for us and for them as well.

Most of all, let’s look at ourselves, to see if, out of a needless sense of our own individual powerlessness, we might sometimes (G-d forbid) be inflicting pain on others.
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[1] This was also in the 3rd of a 3-part post on Pharaoh as an “abuser”: https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/1-20-11-pharaoh-abuser-%d7%91/
[2] New York Daily News; 4/25/12; p. 9
[3] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; “Anger;” Jewish Science and Health; p. 220
[4] Pliskin, Rabbi Zelig; “Anger;” Gateway to Happiness, p. 189 (quoting Luzzatto, Mesilat Yesharim, ch. 11)